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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ted Kattouf and former CIA agent discuss Syria

Earlier this, year, the Middle East Policy Council held a symposium on Syria, featuring Theodore Kattouf, Martha Neff Kessler, Hisham Melhem, and Murhaf Jouejati. Watch the videos on the attached link. Below are some excerpts.

Former US Ambassador to Syria, Ted Kattouf, says:

"My belief is that Iran and Syria would like a situation analogous to what Lebanon was before Syrian troops were forced to withdraw; that is, a weak state, many factions, and Syria and Iran can play - can be the balancing wheel, and can play off one faction against another, control the violence, keep the state from breaking up, because you don't want Kurdish separatism - and there they'll have a lot of support from Turkey as well. And they can both probably do very well financially, as well, particularly Syria, if it has that kind of relationship with the various Iraqi factions.

So I think there is some reason to engage with Syria, I think, particularly, if we want to get out of Iraq with some dignity, with a semblance of order in the country. The Baker-Hamilton Commission is right; we're going to need to engage with Syria, we're going to need to engage with Iran, and there are issues upon which we can engage without offering Syria things that are unacceptable to virtually all of us in this room."

And former CIA agent Martha Kessler adds:
"I think it's important to underscore, however, the assertion in the Commission's study that Syria is simply a fact you cannot ignore in the region; it is a reality that Syria has considerable influence with regard to Iraq and the region generally, and to ignore it is to simply put yourself at a considerable disadvantage. I would also contend that the policy of isolation simply has been proved not to work. I also believe it didn't work in the late 1970s or throughout the '80s when we also tried it and it has been the source of considerable problems that have affected our interests, so I certainly would applaud any efforts in the direction of engaging Syria."

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Syria and the Iraq insurgency

Earlier this week, US Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote an oped for the Wall Street Journal, linking Syria to the instability in Iraq. Among his points:
  • up to 80% of the Iraq-bound extremists transit through Syria
  • Syria refuses to tighten its visa regime for individuals transiting its territory
  • Coalition forces have spent considerable time and energy trying to tighten Syria's land border with Iraq against terrorist infiltration. But given the length and topography of that border, the success of these efforts is likely to remain uneven at best, particularly without the support of the Damascus regime
  • The notion that al Qaeda recruits are slipping into and through the Damascus airport unbeknownst to the local Mukhabarat is totally unbelievable...the Damascus airport is the point of entry into Iraq for most of the suicide bombers who are killing innocent Iraqi citizens and American soldiers, and trying to break America's will in this war.
  • Responsible air carriers should be asked to stop flights into Damascus International, as long as it remains the main terminal of international terror. Despite its use by al Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists, the airport continues to be serviced by many major non-U.S. carriers, including Alitalia, Air France, and British Airways (BMED).
A child with a calculator could debunk Lieberman's argument.

Never mind the "length and topography" - Syria's border with Iraq is only 375 miles, thus deploying 15,000 US troops (which is less than 10% of the total US force currently in Iraq) across the border evenly in 2 12-hour shifts would equate to one soldier every 262 feet - a virtual human net to stop foreign fighters. Our military commanders have never recommended this quite simply because they know that these infiltrators are not the primary source of instability in Iraq.

As for Damascus Airport, Syria's longstanding policy is to allow admission to any Arab national with no visa, much like most Europeans can visit the United States. If Syria did not alter this principle when 1.5 million refugees of the Iraq War fled westward to its cities (proportionally equivalent to 30 million Mexicans crossing the US border over the next 4 years), the idea that it would do so under threat from the United States is just plain silly.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Syria's Top Blogger

Last week there was buzz about the blog of Imad Moustapha, Syrian Ambassador to the US, which I discovered almost 2 years ago. At the time I informed Joshua Landis, who runs syriacomment.com, the foremost Syrian political blog, who then published the link. I happily told the Ambassador that at a reception honoring Hind Kabawat last year.

The AP piece from last week was a positive one for Moustapha, which showed the Syrian Ambassador to be a family man:

"Moustapha writes about Syrian artists, his favorite books and the diplomatic hobnobbing he does on the job.

The blog is full of pictures of vacations with his wife, Rafif al-Sayed, to Europe and Santa Fe, N.M. — and accounts of their new role as parents since the birth of their daughter, Sidra, in January. 'Rafif and I have made an agreement regarding Sidra: she was to be in charge for everything that goes into the baby, I will be responsible for every thing that comes out of her. Accordingly, I became fully responsible for changing her diapers and bathing her,' Moustapha wrote.

He tells of how he put a Web cam in Sidra's nursery so he can check in whenever he misses her. 'It is not out of the ordinary nowadays that, for example, while attending a meeting at the embassy with, say, the leaders of the American Jewish pro-peace organizations, I would excuse myself for a couple of minutes, rush to my adjacent office, check my Internet browser, assure myself that Sidra is blissfully asleep' and then return to work, he wrote recently."

Sad, though, that such a blog merits attention simply because it is "surprising for an official from Syria, where the government is among the most tightlipped in the Middle East," according to the article.

Times are changing, in Syria too, but the media is still listening to 8-tracks from Damascus.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

آل سيمبسون

Here is what some prominent Syrian political figures might look like as characters on The Simpsons:
Hafez Assad - حافظ الأسد

Bashar Assad - بشار الأسد

Antoun Saadeh - أنطون سعادة

Abdul Halim Khaddam - عبدالحليم خدّام

Assef Chawkat - آصف شوكت

Rami Makhlouf - رامي مخلوف


note: thanks to Wassim for pointing out correctly that Farid Ghadry is not a prominent figure. In fact, he's not really Syrian either. But as Wassim notes in the comments, the representation is accurate.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

جبهة الخلاص الوطني مع ولايات متحدة

Today the Wall Street Journal printed an article by Jay Solomon, covering the Syrian opposition, which was full of inaccuracies. The piece began:
"On a humid afternoon in late May, about 100 supporters of Syria's largest exile opposition group, the National Salvation Front, gathered outside Damascus's embassy here to protest Syrian President Bashar Assad's rule. The participants shouted anti-Assad slogans and raised banners proclaiming: Change the Regime Now."
As I recall, there was also a banner that said "Bashar, 99.9% of the Syrian people reject your candidacy." You've got to give the NSF the credit for having the guts to turn out less than 100 people and claim that they represent more than 18 million.

Solomon continued:
"In the 1960s, the Baath party and the Assad family seized power, ushering in a violent chapter in Syrian history."
Actually, Hafez Assad was Defense Minister in the late 60s and didn't seize power until 1970. And that was a bloodless coup - the violence didn't surface until almost a decade later.

There was also mention of Ammar Abdhulhamid:
"During 2006, Syrian exile and democracy activist Ammar Abdulhamid emerged as one of the NSF's main liaisons with senior White House officials. In the weeks surrounding the Lebanon war, which began in July, Messrs. Abdulhamid and Ghadbian and other Syrian-Americans met with Mr. Abrams's deputies in the Old Executive Office building next to the White House. Through these intermediaries, the White House exhorted the NSF to build a wide coalition of opposition groups and to run it in a transparent and democratic manner, participants say. The two sides began discussing ways to highlight the problems of Syria's parliamentary and presidential elections, approaching in 2007. The Baathists allowed no candidates from other parties to run in the May 27 presidential poll."
The only trouble is that Ammar made it pretty clear that he was leaving the NSF back in June. And the elections were held back in May, as mentioned. I find this whole piece out of date, in fact. But some PR agency rang up the right people at the WSJ to get an obsolete puff-piece printed. For example, see this rosy portrayal of Khaddam as a do-gooder.

"By 2003, Mr. Khaddam says he believed one-party rule was fueling corruption and wrecking Syria's economy. Mr. Khaddam, then Syria's vice president, secretly contacted Mr. Bayanouni to discuss a rapprochement. Through a third party, Mr. Khaddam says he conveyed his belief that Syria could progress only if the Muslim Brotherhood was brought inside the political system. In 2005, Mr. Khaddam resigned and fled to Paris.

Messrs. Khaddam and Bayanouni formed the NSF in February 2006. The marriage of the Muslim Brothers and breakaway Baathists shocked many in the Arab world. The pair also reached out to the Bush administration, hoping a partnership with the U.S. could increase pressure on President Assad. Instead of requesting military aid or financing, the group is seeking Washington's help in focusing on Syria's human-rights record."

The subtitle of the piece also mentioned women's rights. Does anyone honestly believe that if the Brotherhood took over Syria, women would enjoy more rights than they currently do?

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Friday, July 20, 2007

سوريا مو الجمهورية العربية السورية

In the March issue of FW:, editor Sami Moubayed wrote a charming piece about "Ahlam", a baby girl born on April 17, 1946, whom he described as having "magnificent Oriental beauty and a smile that simply would not go away. She came from a wealthy and prestigious family that boasted of heritage and traced its roots back to the beginning of civilization." I wrote to Sami to congratulate him, saying:
"that's a lovely piece Sami, although you forgot to mention that Ahlam, though beautiful, was not born intact in 1946 and is missing major parts of her body."
Of course, what I mean is that the Syrian Arab Republic – whose independence is commemorated on April 17, Ahlam's birthday – cannot full claim the heritage of Syria. The Syrian Arab Republic contains most of Syria, embodies the essence of Syria, and pays homage to Syria, but the Syrian Arab Republic is not Syria.

Syria is as old as civilization. It is a geographic region, it is a historical concept, it is a constant of humanity throughout the millennia. Its memory transcends the ages. And it is far above the quibbling over colonial boundaries drawn by outsiders who cannot even hope to grasp its inheritance. And its people – ALL its people – carry its spirit, no matter what emotional baggage of conflicting modern nation-states burdens them, or how separated from their roots by time and distance they may be.

Syrians in America bear witness to that legacy. Seven years ago, I stood beside my grandfather as he read in the newspaper that Hafez Assad had died. Practically with tears in his eyes, he said in a sorrowful tone:

"He was the best Syrian president we ever had!"

"We? Who is 'we' Jido? You were born in the United States in 1917. Hafez was not even born until 1930, and you only visited Syria for the first time in your life in 1993!!!"

For him, it did not matter. To this day, Jido still talks both in English and Arabic, as if he lived his whole life in Aleppo and moved to the United States 2 weeks ago. When we installed satellite TV at home several years ago for him to keep in touch with his roots, he was confused by the political coverage. To this day he cannot comprehend why "Syria" and "Lebanon" have separate Presidents and separate governments.

Jido, and I by extension, are Syrians in the mold of Khalil Gibran, the acclaimed poet who wrote in 1926 the following:

"Stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, 'I am the descendant of a people that built Damascus, and Byblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.'

Be proud of being an American, but also be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid his gracious hand and raised His messengers.

Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you."

It is the Syria of Antoun Saadeh, the patriot who advocated for a single independent political Syrian entity based on the principle that "Syria is for the Syrians and the Syrians are one nation."

It is the Syria of Abraham Mitrie Rihbany, who wrote The Syrian Christ, and said:

"whatever else Jesus was, as regards his modes of thought and life and his method of teaching, he was a Syrian of the Syrians…

It is most natural, then, that Gospel truths should have come down to the succeeding generations—and to the nations of the West—cast in Oriental moulds of thought, and intimately intermingled with the simple domestic and social habits of Syria. The gold of the Gospel carries with it the sand and dust of its original home."

Indeed, St. Matthew wrote in Chapter 4, verse 24 of Jesus Christ that "His fame spread to all of Syria."

Sometimes Lebanese, Jordanian, or Palestinian friends will ask me what my origin is:

"Halabi," I proudly reply.
They respond with a confused look. "Souri, yaeni…"
"La, halabi."
"I don't understand, why don't you just say that you are Syrian?"
"Why don't you?"

Then they ask me, a third-generation member of my family born in the United States and whose ancestors left their homeland on Ottoman and French passports between 1913 and 1921, if I am a dual citizen of Syria:
"No, my political allegiance is to the United States - but I hope one day a true, integral political entity will come to exist, worthy of the name Syria."
For now, Syrians must play with the cards they have been dealt. No one can deconstruct the modern nation-states that comprise Syria. To advocate that would be silly and counterproductive. But Syrians should never abandon their idealism, never forsake their true heritage, and always remember that whatever political action they take in the here and now must only be taken to restore Syria for the coming generations, because the true Syria is forever.

George Ajjan is an American of Syrian origin and a member of the Arab American Institute's National Policy Council. This article first appeared in the June issue of the English-language Syrian Magazine "FW:".

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Featured on syriacomment.com

The popular site syriacomment.com posted a review of syriapol:

About a year ago, the polling site Syriapol was launched, created by George Ajjan, a Syrian-American Republican activist who has commented frequently on US-Syria relations here and elsewhere. Below is a press release that includes a summary of the first phase of the project, in which most of the 350 poll takers were expat Syrians. George hopes to get more participation from inside Syria in the second phase.

Although online polls are usually not as reliable as properly designed polls which try to ensure that their samples are representative of the broader population, George managed to to get closer to the ideal case by targeting Syrians who held various political views by listing a link to syriapol on most of the popular Syrian blogs and sites. This ensured that the sample of participants was not drawn exclusively from Syrians with any specific political camp.

It also included a press release. Here are some excerpts:

The survey's creator, Syrian-American political activist George Ajjan, anticipates the second, more substantial phase of the project, which would entail greater participation from within Syria, thus far limited due to compliance with US sanctions against Syria. Ajjan, whose family emigrated to the US from the city of Aleppo in the early 20th century, says he created the project to offer more reliable information about Syrian public opinion to decision makers and activists across the globe than the biased propaganda spouted by political operatives, both pro-regime and pro-opposition.

syriapol, by contrast, uses a market research technique called conjoint analysis to extract the respondents' preferences on a series of attributes related to regime change, form of government, economic reforms, democratic elections, as well as the Peace Process, and then immediately provides the results confidentially in a graphical format to the individual participant. According to Ajjan, the survey's format, in which a participant evaluates a series of 16 hypothetical scenarios, encourages a more honest assessment because it does not ask direct yes/no questions that almost always lead to jaded responses from participants fearful of government spying.

As for the results, Ajjan says that the initial indications are interesting, but far from conclusive because about 75% of the approximately 350 respondents thus far do not live inside Syria. He further stipulates that online surveys could never provide a truly accurate picture of Syrian society on the whole, given the low rate of Internet penetration, with the caveat that the syriapol project at least provides some quantitative data to balance a political atmosphere currently filled with little more than spin.