Category: Syria

You should be so lucky

My President Is Busy

By Thomas L. Friedman, November 10, 2012

 

Israeli friends have been asking me whether a re-elected President Obama will take revenge on Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for the way he and Sheldon Adelson, his foolhardy financier, openly backed Mitt Romney. My answer to Israelis is this: You should be so lucky.

You should be so lucky that the president feels he has the time, energy and political capital to spend wrestling with Bibi to forge a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t see it anytime soon. Obama has his marching orders from the American people: Focus on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not on Bethlehem, Palestine, and focus on getting us out of quagmires (Afghanistan) not into them (Syria). No, my Israeli friends, it’s much worse than you think: You’re home alone.

Of course, no one here will tell you that. To the contrary, there will surely be a new secretary of state visiting you next year with the umpteenth road map for “confidence-building measures” between Israelis and Palestinians. He or she may even tell you that “this is the year of decision.” Be careful. We’ve been there before. If you Google “Year of decision in the Middle East,” you’ll get more than 100,000,000 links.

Is this good for Israel? No. It is unhealthy. The combination of America’s internal focus, the post-Arab awakening turmoil and the exhaustion of Palestinians means Israel can stay in the West Bank indefinitely at a very low short-term cost but at a very high long-term cost of losing its identity as a Jewish democracy. If Israelis want to escape that fate, it is very important that they understand that we’re not your grandfather’s America anymore.

To begin with, the rising political force in America is not the one with which Bibi has aligned Israel. As the Israeli columnist Ari Shavit noted in the newspaper Haaretz last week: “In the past, both the Zionist movement and the Jewish state were careful to be identified with the progressive forces in the world. … But in recent decades more and more Israelis took to leaning on the reactionary forces in American society. It was convenient to lean on them. The evangelists didn’t ask difficult questions about the settlements, the Tea Party people didn’t say a word about excluding women and minorities or about Jewish settlers’ attacks and acts of vandalism against Palestinians and peace activists. The Republican Party’s white, religious, conservative wing was not agitated when the Israeli Supreme Court was attacked and the rule of law in Israel was trampled.” Israel, Shavit added, assumed that “under the patronage of a radical, rightist America we can conduct a radical, rightist policy without paying the price.” No more. Netanyahu can still get a standing ovation from the Israel lobby, but not at U.C.L.A.

At the same time, U.S. policy makers have learned that the Middle East only puts a smile on our faces when it starts with them: with Israelis and Arabs. Camp David started with them. Oslo started with them. The Arab Spring started with them. When they have ownership over peace or democracy movements, those initiatives can be self-sustaining. We can amplify what they start, but we can’t create it. We can provide the mediation and even the catering, but it’s got to start with them.

We’ve learned something else from our interventions in Afghanistan and Libya: We willed the ends, but we did not will the means — that is, doing all that it would take to transform those societies. That is why we’re quitting Afghanistan, staying out of Syria and relying on sanctions, as long as possible, to dissuade Iran from building a nuclear bomb. These countries are too hard to fix but too dangerous to ignore. We’ll still try to help, but we’ll expect regional powers, and the locals, to assume more responsibility.

Finally, we really have work to do at home. Soon Americans will be asked to pay more taxes for less government. It’s coming. It will not make us isolationists, but it will change our mood and make us much pickier about where we’ll get involved. That means only a radical change by Palestinians or Israelis will get us to fully re-engage.

The other day, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority declared: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital. This is Palestine. I am a refugee. I live in Ramallah. The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.”

This was a big signal, but Bibi scorned it. The Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote an open letter to Netanyahu in Haaretz, taking him to task: “This is a bit embarrassing, but I will remind you, Mr. Netanyahu, that you were elected to lead Israel precisely in order to discern these rare hints of opportunity, in order to transform them into a possible lever to extricate your country from the impasse in which it has been stuck for decades.”

So my best advice to Israelis is: Focus on your own election — on Jan. 22 — not ours. I find it very sad that in a country with so much human talent, the Israeli center and left still can’t agree on a national figure who could run against Netanyahu and his thuggish partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — a man whose commitment to democracy is closer to Vladimir Putin’s than Thomas Jefferson’s. Don’t count on America to ride to the rescue. It has to start with you.

My president is busy.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/friedman-president-obama-is-busy.html or http://nyti.ms/QvzFYZ

Photograph (modified) of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during a press statement in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, by Vadim Ghirda/AP. http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Israel-s-prime-minister-gets-backing-from-Romania-1454013.php or http://bit.ly/q2hCtJ or http://tinyurl.com/3zt72p9

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2012/11/10/you-should-be-so-lucky/

Keeping clean is a dirty business

The Syrian army would like to appear squeaky clean. It isn’t

By Robert Fisk, Monday 27 August 2012

 

Every day, a new massacre is reported in Syria. Yesterday, it was Daraya. Slaughter by Syrian troops, according to those opposed to Bashar al-Assad. Slaughter by Bashar’s “terrorist” opponents, the Syrian army said, producing the wife of a soldier whom they said had been shot and left for dead in a Daraya graveyard.

Of course, all armies want to stay clean. All that gold braid, all those battle honours, all that parade-ground semper fi. Thank God for Our Boys. Trouble is that when they go to war, armies ally themselves to the most unsavoury militias, gunmen, reservists, killers and mass murderers, often local vigilante groups who invariably contaminate the men in smart uniforms and high falutin’ traditions, until the generals and colonels have to re-invent themselves and their history.

Take the Syrian army. It kills civilians but claims to take every care to avoid “collateral damage”. The Israelis say the same. The Brits say the same, the Americans and French. And of course, when an insurgent group – the Free Syrian Army or Salafists – set up positions in the cities and towns of Syria, government forces open fire on them, kill civilians, thousands of refugees cross the border and CNN reports – as it did on Friday night – that refugees cursed Bashar al-Assad as they fled their homes.

And I cannot forget how Al Jazeera, loathed by Bashar now as it was once hated by Saddam, came back from Basra in 2003 with terrifying footage of dead and wounded Iraqi women and children who had been shredded by British artillery firing at the Iraqi army. And we don’t need to mention all those Afghan wedding parties and innocent tribal villages pulverised by US gunfire and jets and drones.

The Syrian military, whether it admits it or not – and I’m not happy with the replies I got from Syrian officers on the subject last week – work with the shabiha (or “village defenders” as one soldier called them), who are a murderous, largely Alawite rabble who have slaughtered hundreds of Sunni civilians. Maybe the International Court in the Hague will one day name Syrian soldiers responsible for such crimes – be sure they won’t touch the West’s warriors – but it will be impossible for the Syrian army to write the shabiha out of the history of their war against the “terrorists”, “armed groups”, Free Syria Army and al-Qa’ida.

The attempted disconnect has already begun. Syrian troops are fighting at the request of their people to defend their country. The shabiha have nothing to do with them. And I have to say – and no, yet again, I am not comparing Bashar with Hitler or the Syrian conflict with the Second World War – that the German Wehrmacht tried to play the same narrative game in 1944 and 1945 and, then, in a much bigger way, in post-war Europe. The disciplined lads of the Wehrmacht never indulged in war crimes or genocide against the Jews in Russia, Ukraine or the Baltic states or Poland or Yugoslavia. No, it was those damned SS criminals or the Einsatzgruppen or the Ukrainian militia or the Lithuanian paramilitary police or the proto-Nazi Ustashe who besmirched the good name of Germany. Bulls***, of course, though German historians who set out to prove the criminality of the Wehrmacht still face abuse.

The Vichy French army tried to clean its claws by claiming that all atrocities were committed by the “Milice”, while the Italians blamed it all on the Germans. The Americans used the vilest criminal gangs in Vietnam, the French used colonial troops to massacre insurgents in Algeria. The Brits tolerated the B Specials in Northern Ireland until they invented the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), which got contaminated by sectarian killings and was disbanded. No, the UDR was squeaky clean compared to the Germans. But at the height of their Iraqi occupation war, the Americans were paying Sunni “neighbourhood guards” to liquidate their Shia enemies, and paying thug-like reservists – along with quite a few professionals – to torture their prisoners in Abu Ghraib. And then there is Israel – forced to grovel when their own Lebanese Phalangist militia slaughtered 1,700 Palestinians in 1982. Their equally vicious South Lebanon Army militia tortured prisoners with electricity in the Khiam prison inside Israel’s occupied zone in southern Lebanon.

Of course, war stains all who take part in it. Wellington’s men in the Peninsula Wars could no more prevent their Spanish guerrilla allies committing atrocities than the Brits and Americans could prevent their Soviet allies raping five million German women in 1945. Didn’t the Turkish army use its own version of the SS – along with Kurdish militia – to help in the genocide of the Armenians in 1915?

The Allies of the Second World War did their share of extrajudicial executions – though on nothing like the scale of their enemies – and, thanks to YouTube, our very own beloved Free Syria Army has actually advertised its own murders in Syria. Chucking policemen off roofs and shooting shabiha to death after torturing them doesn’t burnish the reputations of La Clinton or the messieurs Fabius and Hague. Keeping clean is a dirty business.

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-the-syrian-army-would-like-to-appear-squeaky-clean-it-isnt-8082070.html or http://ind.pn/PegcVO

Photograph:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/07/world/middleeast/07photo.html or http://nyti.ms/lIAbPN or http://tinyurl.com/43rx7mr or https://levantium.com/?p=2480

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2012/08/27/keeping-clean-is-a-dirty-business/

The other side of the fork was chosen

Could Syria’s Current Predicament Have Been Avoided Over A Decade Ago?

By Ehsani, Friday, August 3rd, 2012

 

Like nearly 25 million other Syrians, one cannot help but feel stunned and exasperated by the events engulfing our country.  How did we get here? How can a country long associated with “stability” suddenly unravel and enter what seems to most like a black hole?

Things could not look more differently back in November 2000. Barely few months into his Presidency, the 34 year-old new leader declared the closing of the Mezze prison and the release of hundreds of political prisoners. Those hoping for the birth of a new Syria felt vindicated. Surely, the past thirty years of the heavy handedness of the much feared Moukhabarat agencies would soon give way to a new atmosphere of political, legal and economic reform.

Michele Kilo, Burhan Ghalioun, Riad Seif, Aref Dalila, Anwar al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani , Mamoun al-Homsi, Omar Amiralay, Suhair al-Atassi, Hussein al-Awdat, Antoun al-Makdisi, Fawaz Tillo, Habib Salih, Haitham al-Maleh and Radwan Ziadeh certainly all thought so as they made up the major figures of what later became known as the “Damascus Spring”.

Groups of like-minded people were suddenly meeting in private houses and discussing political matters and social questions. Such locations were soon referred to as “mundatat” or “salons”. Naturally, political demands soon grew into what was later referred to as the “Manifesto of the 99”. The principal demand consisted of the cancellation of the state of emergency and abolition of martial law and special courts; the release of all political prisoners; the return without fear of prosecution of political exiles; and the right to form political parties and civil organization. To these was often added the more precisely political demand that Article 8 of the Syrian constitution be repealed. The movement never called for regime change nor challenged the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s succession to the presidency.

Participants of The Damascus Spring were ahead of their time. The Arab world was yet to experience a spring of any kind.  It is worth noting that the salons debated not only Article 8 but many political and social questions from the position of women to the nature of education methods and the Arab Israeli conflict.

How long did reforms last?

By February 2001, the security heads had seen enough.  The young President must have been warned of the slippery slope nature that his promised reforms were likely to morph into.

A sudden change of heart caused such Political forums to be forcibly closed.  Seif, Riad al-Turk, Mamoun Al-Homsi, Aref Dalila, and others were arrested and charged with “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means” and “inciting racial and sectarian strife” and were sentenced by the Damascus Criminal Court to five years in jail. The other eight activists including  Walid al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani, and Fawwaz Tello were referred to the Supreme State Security Court which issued prison sentences between two to 10 years.

Only one salon, the Jamal al-Atassi National Dialogue Forum, was still permitted to function. The Atassi forum was finally also shut down in 2005 after a member had read a statement from the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The final red line was crossed.

Set below is a quote from that period:

“Maybe there are some economic changes, a private bank, and so on, but the laws controlling political life, freedom, they haven’t changed at all. Any time the Government wants to, it can put people in jail. We have emergency laws, special courts, illegal arrests, and the security chiefs have a say in every Government decision, including economic ones. In practice, the charges and the sentence come to the judge in the same envelope” – Mr. Anwar al-Bounni, a lawyer active in the Human Rights Association of Syria

Human journeys are akin to making constant decisions about which direction to take when one faces a fork in the road. Destinies can be decided by such decisions. Bashar al-Assad’s very own destiny may well have been decided by that choice 18 months into his leadership. The new era of freedom and reform that started with the closure of the Mezze prison was on one side of the fork. The advice of the security agencies and the regime’s hawkish elements pointed to the other side of the road. Mr. Assad sided with his security men and he was soon to order the swift closing of that Damascus Spring now more than a decade old.

Back then, there were no armed terrorists, salafis or foreign conspirators. Syria was on the cusp of potentially leading the Arab world in political reform. The activists of the time saw their young 34 year old new President as the agent of change. Had he obliged, he would have arguably been a truly generational Arab figure who would lead his young nation into political freedom and economic prosperity.

Regrettably, the other side of the fork was chosen.

Many will take issue with the above note and claim that it is too simplistic. Surely, Syria’s current predicament cannot be related to events from a decade ago many will argue. While no one can dismiss the international geopolitical dimensions of the current crisis, it is simply not credible to argue that consistent domestic political and economic failures do not lie at the heart of this tsunami engulfing this nation and its people.

 

http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/?p=15617 or http://bit.ly/PQfEpf

Illustration:  http://teamofmonkeys.com/html/images/Bashar-al-Assad.png

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2012/08/06/the-other-side-of-the-fork-was-chosen/

Rights and wrongs are rather more complex

Seidnaya

Syria’s Shades of Gray

By William Dalrymple, June 07, 2003

 

The United States has probably never been more engaged in the Middle East than now, with an American army of occupation in Iraq and President Bush promoting a Israeli-Palestinian road map to peace. Yet the Bush administration has virtually ignored Syria, which physically links Iraq and Israel, except to single it out as a target of occasional bellicose threats. There has been no question of constructive engagement with Iraq’s most powerful Arab neighbor. Instead Syria is seen merely as an unofficial adjunct to the Axis of Evil, ripe for reform if not outright invasion.

That’s unfortunate, because Syria, despite its many justifiably condemned policies, stands out in the Middle East in one respect that American policy makers should take into consideration. This aspect of Syria is most starkly on display at Saidnaya, a large Orthodox monastery north of Damascus.

The monastery sits on a great crag of rock overlooking the olive groves of the Damascene plain, more like a Crusader castle than a place of worship. But what is most striking about Saidnaya is that on any given night, Muslim pilgrims far outnumber Christian ones. When you walk into its ancient pilgrimage church, you find the congregation consists largely of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded wives. As the priest circles the altar, filling the sanctuary with clouds of incense, the men bob up and down on their prayer mats. A few of the women approach the icons. They kiss them, then light a candle.

Ordinary Muslims in Syria, it seems, have not forgotten the line in the Koran about not disputing with the people of the book — that is, Jews and Christians — ”save in the most courteous manner . . . and say we believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one.”

The religious pluralism that the pilgrimage church represents was once not uncommon across the Levant. Throughout the region until very recently, villagers of all faiths would converge on the shrines of Christian saints to ask for children and good harvests. Eastern Christians and Muslims lived side by side for nearly one and a half millennia because of a degree of mutual tolerance and shared customs unimaginable in the solidly Christian West. From Bosnia to Egypt, Christians and Muslims as well as many other religious minorities managed to live together. If that coexistence was not always harmonious, it was at least — with a few notable exceptions — until the beginning of the 20th century, a kind of pluralist equilibrium.

Only in the last 100 years has that pluralism been replaced by a new hardening in attitudes. Across the former Ottoman dominions, the 20th century saw the bloody unraveling of that complex tapestry — most recently in Kosovo and Bosnia, but before that in Cyprus, Palestine, Greece and Turkey. In each of these places pluralism has been replaced by a savage polarization. In dribs and drabs, and sometimes in great tragic exoduses, religious minorities have fled to places where they can be majorities, and those too few for that have fled the region altogether. Only in Syria has this process been firmly arrested: there alone, you still find five or six religious sects coexisting in villages across the country.

Since the coalition’s victory in Iraq, Syria has frequently been given notice that it could well be the next target of American wrath. Yet the Middle East is not a place where the simplistic notion of good guys and bad guys makes much sense. It is a place of murky moral gray, not black and white. Torture, repression of minorities, the imposition of military law and the abuse of basic human rights happen every bit as frequently and as unpleasantly in states that are American allies as they do in states that are not.

Certainly, most would agree that Syria has much to reform. It is a one-party state where political activists are suppressed and the secret police fill jail cells with political prisoners who will never come before a judge. Violent opposition to the regime is met with overwhelming force, most horribly in the case of the armed rising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982: the city was sealed off and at least 10,000 people were killed.

Yet the balance sheet is not entirely one-sided, and with the Pentagon busy drawing up invasion plans even as Iraq still contends with postwar anarchy and the Taliban resurfaces in southern Afghanistan, it is well to consider carefully exactly what would be lost if Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, were to be deposed.

For if Syria is a one-party police state, it is a police state that tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of politics. And if political freedoms have always been severely and often brutally restricted, Mr. Assad’s regime does allow the Syrian people cultural and religious freedoms. Today, these give Syria’s minorities a security and stability far greater than their counterparts anywhere else in the region. This is particularly true of Syria’s ancient Christian communities.

Almost everywhere else in the Levant, because of discrimination and in some cases outright persecution, the Christians are leaving. Today in the Middle East they are a small minority of 14 million; in the last 20 years at least two million have left to make new lives for themselves in Europe, Australia and America. Only in Syria has this pattern been resisted. As the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, told me on my last visit: ”Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim.”

He added: ”If Syria were not here, we would be finished. It is a place of sanctuary, a haven for all the Christians: for the Nestorians driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians driven out of Turkey, even the Palestinian Christians driven out by the Israelis” in 1948.

The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can’t help but notice the minute you arrive in the country. This is particularly so if you arrive from eastern Turkey. There, until very recently, minority languages like the Aramaic spoken by Syrian Orthodox Christians were banned from the airwaves and from schools. For Christianity in eastern Turkey is a secretive affair, and the government has closed all the country’s seminaries.

But cross into Syria and you find a very different picture. Qamishli, the first town on the Syrian side of the frontier, is 75 percent Christian, and icons of Christ and images of his mother fill shops and decorate every other car window — an extraordinary display after the furtiveness of Christianity in Turkey.

The reason for this is not hard to find. President Assad is Alawite, a Muslim minority regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretical and disparagingly referred to as ”little Christians”: indeed some scholars believe their liturgy to be partly Christian in origin. Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, who was president from 1971 until his death in 2000, kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s religious minorities through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority. In the Assads’ Syria, Christians have done particularly well: in his final years, five of Hafez’s seven closest advisers were Christians. The Christians are openly fearful that if the Assad regime should fall, their last real haven in the Middle East will disappear and be replaced by yet another fundamentalist government, as may be the case in Iraq.

All this does not excuse the repressive policies of the Assad regime. But in a region where repression is the rule rather than the exception, it is important to remember that the political rights and wrongs are rather more complex than the neoconservatives and Pentagon hawks are prepared to acknowledge — or perhaps even know.

William Dalrymple is author of ”From the Holy Mountain: Travels Among the Christians of the Middle East” and ”White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-Century India.”

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/07/opinion/syria-s-shades-of-gray.html or http://nyti.ms/17AqrQO

Photograph (modified) of Convent of Our Lady of Seidnaya, by Jerzy Strzelecki, 2001.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seidnaya(js)2.jpg

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2003/06/07/rights-and-wrongs-are-rather-more-complex/