Friday, August 27, 2004

Washington and Syria fight over Harriri

Washington struck back today

Friday 27 August, against Syrian plans to extend Lahoud's presidency. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement the United States "believes strongly that the best interests of Lebanon and Syria are served by a positive and constructive relationship based upon principles of mutual respect and non-intervention'' between the two neighboring states. He said Lebanon should be free of all foreign forces and stand by a constitutional provision that prevents a president from seeking a second term. This shot across Syria's bow comes at the same time that some in Washington seek to build on claims that Syria has acquired centrifuges and is developing nuclear weapons.
As the State Department reports:

The United States has assessed that Syria acquired components for centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium in what could be the most significant step in that Arab country's nascent nuclear weapons program.

U.S. officials said Syria was believed to have been a client of a nuclear smuggling network led by Pakistani nuclear chief Abdul Qadeer Khan. They said the U.S. intelligence community obtained evidence that the Khan network sold and delivered components for an unspecified number of Pakistani-designed P1 centrifuges to Syria. The officials said Damascus through Firas Tlas, the son of Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, became a customer of Khan in 2001. The centrifuge components and other nuclear equipment were ordered by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein via Syria, officials said. The centrifuges and nuclear equipment were said to have reached Iraq through Syria and deliveries might have continued after the fall of the Saddam regime in April 2003.

Andrew J. Tabler, in his consistently smart analysis of regional affairs, explains in "Some useful rules for reading Syria's coffee grinds "that Damascus has responded to Washington's and Israel's pressure in some surprising ways. "In the aftermath of various external crises throughout 2003-2004, the state actually accelerated economic reform initiatives," although it kept a tight grip on the internal political situation. He provides four wise rules for assessing Syrian goals. He is even hopeful that Washington has begun to engage Damascus on some important economic issues and gives some sound advice:

Today, Washington and Damascus seem to be on talking terms again. The US says it is currently "engaging" Syria over proposed sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria, and other talks are reportedly under way. At this point it is important for both sides to stop and think where they hope to be five or 10 years down the line, and how to get there. Syria is at a political and developmental crossroads. Its reformers need international assistance to clean up the country's murky regulatory environment and allow Syrians to thrive as individuals. Help is coming from the European Union, Japan, and the UN, but much more is needed. Taking a closer look at what we really know about Syria is a good first step.

Whether Washington will be able to continue such negotiations now that US-Syrian relations have stumbled on Lebanon is anyone's guess. Those in Washington who are trying to negotiate with Damascus will likely get sidelined by the hardliners who itching for a fight and for continued efforts to isolate Syria. If Washington believes that it can unite the Lebanese against Syria, it is in for another disappointment. Washington has little to offer the Lebanese, but encouraging words. Because it refuses to offer Syria real concessions, Syria will continue to jam a stick in Washington's regional spokes. Ali el-Saleh, writing in, gives some background to Tabler's ovservation that Damascus has been pushing ahead with economic reforms. He also argues emphatically that Washington is misguided if it thinks it can provoke a revolution in Syrian or regional affairs without first building strong relationships with regional actors. In his article: "Damascus Between “Islam” and “Secularity”: Continuities and Discontinuities in Syrian Economic History" Ali El-Saleh, writes that: The Syrian colonial state that was implanted after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was only autonomous from the society it governed. France as the mandatory power was firmly convinced that the achievement of a program of economic development could not be left to the initiative of the mandated Syrian “secular” state. France’s concerns to benefit from the privileges of the Mandate Charter and to reduce the costs of its occupation of the country proved an obstacle to any overall planning which would meet the real needs of the Syrian economy. The major achievements consisted in consolidating the financial position of politically reliable absentee landowners and that of their allied emerging entrepreneurs. France also helped in playing the role of the midwife at the birth of the new “class” of white collars. The postcolonial national Syrian state went much further than either the Islamic or the “secular” colonial states in redrafting the social structure of the country but not in reshuffling its economy properly: The Syrian Ba’ath before coming to power, recruited heavily among professionals of rural origin, particularly among religious minorities, but also among the urban petite bourgeoisie trading segments, not to mention pan Arab intellectuals. From their ranks emerged the cadres and leaders of this secularist party. They were by default the seedbeds for a new dominant class of a new expanding state system: the Syrian “statist” state. The military had again been the prime path for their ascent.The expansion of the state apparatus led to the formation of a large and inefficient public-managerial stratum. The concentration of investable capital among a great number of dependant private-sector businesses, the rent-seeking behavior, corruption, and twisted deals with the private sector were and are in turn part of the decay of bureaucratically managed development strategies implemented in Syria during the last forty years. The gray and black clandestine economies came to rival the legal economy. Vast fortunes made from evasion and rent-seeking behavior had totally undermined the statist project. The failure of the old Ba’ath ideology led the state leadership to explore other horizons. One realizes that the state elaborate system of controls, regulations, licenses, administered prices, and inflexible exchange rates drove much of the economic activity underground where it could not be monitored, oriented, and taxed. Paradoxically, liberalization can thus be seen as the only means by which the state can regain control over the direction of the economy! It seems, paradoxically too, that the observed symbiosis between the national “secular” state and the Sunni Islamic orthodoxy has remained a barrier to liberalization and open discussions of religious and national diversity ever since. The irony is that in Syria the secular rulers have sought to conform to the majority Sunni notions of Islam, rather than to enforce secularism or western notions of separation between church and state in order to strengthen the unity of a dangerously diversified society facing regional centrifugal challenges. However, they chose that direction rather to reinforce above all their political legitimacy. A struggle is now underway between those “technos”, who wish to believe further and firmly in the renewal of a dying public sector to whose disruption they have once contributed and those “politicos” of the state bourgeoisie who believe they should turn the actual state itself, with the hope of reproducing themselves this time under the “liberal” banner. This is a very familiar situation. The state bourgeoisie after four decades of state capitalism will begin liquidating through privatization most of the state economic assets. The new rural and urban entrepreneurs and the large “new” middle classes have been largely created, as already mentioned, because of the state policies. They are already strong enough to constrain state initiatives in several domains. Would they be able or wish to press ahead with changes? I doubt it under the present circumstances. Many private-sector actors do not want the state to get out of the provision of subsidized credit nor to cease to supply intermediate goods at low cost. They do not wish the state to curtail the leasing of large contracts to the private sector or to lower too soon protective tariff walls as subscribed by the projected Association Agreement between Syria and the European Union. Besides, what happened in Iraq for instance does not give them much choice if they have to face on their own the so-called “liberal” rules of American free market competition policies. In view of this, one can repeat once more that the public and private sectors in Syria share a symbiotic, not an adversarial, relationship, and that the retreat of the state will not be uniformly welcomed, or encouraged. Conclusion In winding up this subject, I am of the opinion that Islam in the past did not seek to mobilize people for economic purposes. Nowhere, did we observe any mobilization for an economic change or transformation on the social level, at least not in Syria. However, it is clear that Islam as was understood in the tenth century was not precisely that of the Koran and that Islam of the twenty-first century is not the same as that of the tenth century, etc. and that all of this must be associated with social evolution. One might also draw attention to how modern conditions have strongly changed the manner of how the majority of Muslims interpret and practice their religion now. Generally, the fundamental economic relations that shape production and the distribution of products also reshape the main tasks and occupations of the society. Together they form a system. A society is not built around “interpretations and symbols”, but around essential tasks without which it could not be able to sustain itself. The relations of production are primary, simply because they structure the main functions of the society, while ideologies, religions, philosophy, etc. and similar think-tank tools and intellectual disciplines seek to think, to interpret production, reproduction, and their structures; they think also society itself and other many things. The producer engaged in the production process is also a thinking man. His mode of thinking influences the way he is engaged in production, but his thinking hardly changes and it rarely alters the relations of production whereas the latter are always present and weigh heavily and enduringly upon ideology. Even more so since, they do not belong to the sphere of consciousness. What is extremely important now besides other pressing matters is what kind of political action is intended for example by the G8 concerning their so-called project of “Greater Middle East Initiative”. It is important to realize and to affirm here that one cannot change societies by merely trying to change their consciousness and their culture from the outside, in other words change them by sheer will. One cannot command a society or the natural world without complying with their inherent rules. It is simplistic to consider ideological motivations as a “reflection” of “rational” motivations. The American war in Iraq is a further classic example of a political action with an “ideological” motivation. There is no doubt that for many GIs at least, the incentive that propels them is the wish to fight against international terrorism, which was responsible for September 11 and similar actions. Others, in the upper US political stratum think in terms of Armageddon and absurdly entertain expectations of gratitude on the part of Iraqis for their “liberation”. These driving forces, more or less, blend with other prosaic motivations, such as those embraced by individuals. However, on the collective social level, the war was planned and executed at a fixed date, in conformity to engineered projects, plans, and calculations. In other words, the war focused on “rational” and extra-moral or religious factors, the target being the political control of Iraq and the Middle East. This example is worth mentioning as an illustration of the type of rationalization specifically occidental, mentioned by Max Weber and others, which parades as well as shelters under the guise of Christianity or western ethics. There is not much evidence of the clash of values here. The problem seems to be rather simpler. The Arab and the Muslim Worlds do not mind American and European values, but they cannot stand American policies and by extension these policies when embraced or tolerated by Europeans. Explaining Syrian apathy toward Lebanon: Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian reporter, tries to explain to his Lebanese readers why Syrians don't take the side of the Lebanese against their government. He writes that: "With the exception of a very small number of people at the very top of the political leadership in Damascus, the general attitude of Syrians toward what goes on in Lebanon is characterized by a lack of concern, even bewilderment." Only a very small group of Syrians objects to Syria's domination of Lebanon, he states. The vast majority of Syrians ignore Lebanon and the half-million or so Syrians who work there, are largely from the countryside and poor. Their attitudes toward Lebanon "are similar to those in the rest of Syria, but more extreme. To the peasant from the Hawran or the Jazeera, Lebanon is not only a place characterized by pleasure seeking and over-indulgence that he neither understands nor feels at home with, it is also a country that denigrates and fails to respect him. Syrian laborers, who find that their own country cannot employ them all, but who are also downtrodden in Lebanon, have no incentive to change the hegemonic relationship between Syria and Lebanon." Another reason for Syrian silence on the situation in Lebanon, the author notes, is not "because we are feigning innocence, but because we lack confidence in both ourselves and our regime."

This public attitude results from a variety of factors, namely alienation from and fear of the regime, an inability to understand why it behaves the way it does, and a realization that the ruling elite only acts to further its own interests and to prolong its time in power. Within this context, Syrian military and security hegemony over Lebanon is still, until today, shrouded in the frightening considerations buttressing the regime in Syria - those of "national security," "high matters of national interest," as well as fear and secrecy. And despite the fact that the climate of fear that had inhibited the discussion of internal Syrian political matters has ebbed in recent years, this impression, particularly when compared to the freedom of speech enjoyed by Syrian writers in the Lebanese press, is overstated.

An even more compelling reason for the lack of concern for Lebanese issues in Syria is probably a lack of public awareness. There is nothing in the psychological make-up of Syrians, or in their living memory, that allows them to fall back on a previous time when their country ruled over another. That's because such a reality is in stark contradiction with contemporary Syrian history, which has been distinguished by the fact that it is others who have imposed hegemony over Syria. It is normal that this sentiment should have provoked a sense of victimhood, a psychological state that has brought about a disregard for facts and prevented Syrians from considering the potentially hegemonic relationships in which their country has played an active part (whether with respect to Syria's Kurds, Palestinians, or, in the past, the Palestinian Liberation Organization). Official statements aside, independent analyses of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship tend to focus on the dangers that Israel poses and on the intricate religious and sectarian dimensions of Lebanon as the defining characteristics of this relationship. Clearly, however, these two characteristics serve to defend the status quo in the relationship rather than provoke its reconsideration.


At 4/12/2008 03:00:00 PM, Blogger crestcap said...

Even though you wrote this over 3 years ago - it is still very insightful today.


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