Baath Will Disolve its National Leadership and Drop the word "Socialism"
For those who are optimistic about coming changes during the Regional Baath Party Congress, the following article should be on interest. The Minister of Planning, Dardari, has also been giving interviews trying to drum up support and optimism about the coming changes. Much of the work of his office depends on altering the Baath constitution where socialism is concerned. He also needs to clear away some of the dead wood around him and keep his avenue to the President open.
"The Baath Will Dissolve its National Leadership and Drop the word "Socialism" from the Party Name." That is what al-Sharq al-Awsat claims (article in Arabic) is going to happen at the 10th meeting of the Regional Leadership due to be held next month. Ayman Abdulnour is the main source for the article. As a party member and one of the best informed Syrians around, he should know.
Deborah Amos of NPR has a good story on Syria which nicely catches the quandary Syrians are in. On the one hand they are fed up with the corruption of the party and regime and despair that it can change itself. On the other hand, everyone keeps praying that Bashar, whom most people like, will be able to "pull a rabbit out of a hat." They look at Iraq and Lebanon and don't want to risk civil war or major instability to get their change. As one Syrian reporter told me the other day, "The problem is that we are not willing to sacrifice like the Lebanese or Iraqis to get change. I am the first one to admit to being a coward."
Needless to say, he had a good job. On my recent trip around Syria, I had a chance to look up many old friends and makes some new ones. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many old friends were doing quite well and had prospered over the last 15 years since I last saw them. Most, however, felt that they had not had the opportunities they could have because of economic stagnation and government obstruction. I will write about this at length in my upcoming travelogue.
Elisabeth Eaves of Slate was recently in town and has written an excellent series of articles that don't just trawl over the same material. She has a nice eye for detail.
From: Elisabeth Eaves
Subject: Going Home
Updated Tuesday, April 19, 2005, at 8:22 AM PT
Today's slide show: Images from Sayyida Zeinab, Damascus
On the fringes of Sayyida Zeinab, an outlying suburb of Damascus, there are signs of transience. Buses are lined up pointing eastward, facing desert for hundreds of miles. There are families loading large square packages and plastic-wrapped children's bicycles into the cargo holds. There are cheap hotels and signs on boxy concrete buildings that advertise furnished rooms for rent.
Dominated by the spectacular golden dome of the Sayyida Zeinab mosque, this neighborhood draws Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and farther afield. For more than a decade now it has also been a magnet for Iraqi Shiite migrants who have come and stayed, in numbers that probably peaked in the hundreds of thousands. They came during the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran that ended in 1988, then during the Persian Gulf War of 1990 and 1991, and then they came as refugees from Saddam Hussein's regime. Most recently, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, they came again.
"I came to feel like I'm a human being," said Ali Raouf Abdul Amir, a patron of the Restaurant of the Youth of Iraq. He arrived on May 25, 2000, before the most recent war. "I had to serve twice in the Iraqi army, and so I couldn't grow at all financially," he said. "Imagine a person my age not married yet." Amir, 30, is an artisan who inlays precious stones into metal in his shop one alley over from the restaurant. His sister and two brothers followed him here and sat out the postwar chaos, but they left six months ago. Amir is now thinking of going home too.
Newspapers, citing the United Nations and Syrian officials, have suggested that between 500,000 and 700,000 Iraqis—Muslim and Christian and of various ethnicities—have arrived in Syria since the war ended, joining some 100,000 Iraqis who were already here. An official at the International Organization for Migration in Damascus suggested to me that the number of new Iraqi arrivals was 400,000. If somewhat disparate, these figures are better than the statistics on how many Iraqis are leaving Syria, which don't exist.
There are anecdotes, though. Two-thirds of Iraqis in Sayyida Zeinab have returned to their homeland since last autumn, according to an estimate by Bassim Suleikhi, an Iraqi trucker and trader who travels the road between Damascus and Najaf. He splits his time between the two cities when he is not on the road, and he, too, takes tea at the Restaurant of the Youth of Iraq.
Two-thirds sounds like a lot, especially since Sayyida Zeinab still feels Iraqi in many ways, as well as overwhelmingly Shiite. (Shiite Muslims make up only a small minority in Syria.) The streets and alleys around the mosque, where you can buy assorted nuts, a whole goat carcass, or a polyester dress, were thronged with shoppers on the two occasions I visited. Nearly every woman wore an all-erasing black cloak of the kind typical in Iran and southern Iraq but unusual in downtown Damascus, where European dress is common. Campaign posters from Iraq's Jan. 30 election were still pasted to the walls, all of them for the United Iraqi Alliance, or 169 list, the Shiite party endorsed by the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. (Ibrahim Jaafari, a 169 candidate, is Iraq's new prime minister.) There is an Imam Sadr Hospital on Sayyida Zeinab's busiest thoroughfare, named for the late Iraqi cleric Mohammed Sadiq Sadr. As well as founding a network of Shiite charities, he fathered the young firebrand Muqtada Sadr.
Even President Bashar Assad appears to have pragmatically franchised himself in Sayyida Zeinab. Throughout most of Syria his face appears alone, hanging on government ministries, buses, and barbershops. Often his image appears near a picture of his late father, Hafez, the former president, or his deceased brother Basil, the would-be president who was killed in a car crash. Occasionally, Bashar appears in a pastoral setting with his wife and kids. In Sayyida Zeinab, though, the photo on the walls is one of him sitting as an equal beside Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia group. Perhaps, in fact, it is the residents of Sayyida Zeinab who have done the co-opting. Bowing to the unspoken national demand to display the president, they have chosen this particular depiction.
Still, as the election posters fade in the bright sun, the 10- to 14-hour road trip to Najaf is beginning to look more attractive for Iraqis who, after all, can never obtain Syrian citizenship.
"I'm homesick, and I expect the Iraqi government to stabilize things soon," Amir said. He told me that government jobs in Najaf now pay $200 a month, compared to $3 a month under Saddam Hussein. "If the government employees are getting good salaries, they go out and buy televisions and other things," he reasoned. Suleikhi, the trucker, told me government jobs back home now paid $300-$400 a month. In any case, the reports are good. "The standard of living is 100 percent better," Suleikhi said. I have met few men more openly pleased than these two with both Syria and the United States.
"We will never forget about Syria, which hosted us all these years," Amir said, adding that he has had the freedom to do as he pleases here. Syria has allowed Iraqi migrants to send their children to public schools, get medical treatment at public clinics, and obtain drivers' licenses. Suleikhi, for his part, said that he prefers traveling to Syria than to Jordan, because of the psychological bond between Iraqis and Syrians. As for the United States, "the invasion was a good thing," said Suleikhi. Thirty-eight and single, he has been traveling between Syria and Iraq since 1997. He buys parts for cars and trucks in Syria and sells them in Iraq, and he has noticed a major upturn in business since the end of the war.
Amir says he is grateful to the United States for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but he is more circumspect than Suleikhi. He noted that Najaf, while much improved over recent months, suffers from the lingering blight of occasional terrorist attacks, which he blames on Sunni fundamentalists. He is not entirely sure about the U.S. government's intentions and said that it may have lied about being a liberator rather than an occupier. I asked him what he would do if that was the case. With enviable peace of mind, he said, "We will await Sistani's word and do what he says."
From: Elisabeth Eaves
Subject: A Roaring Absence of Failure
Posted Wednesday, April 20, 2005, at 3:23 AM PT
Today's slide show: Images from the Golan
Peacekeepers get a bad rap, and it's not hard to see why. Time after time, warring parties have slaughtered one another in their presence, sometimes on a massive scale. U.N. troops were present when Rwandans butchered Rwandans in 1994 and when Bosnian-Serb forces overwhelmed Srebrenica in 1995. When peacekeeping troops are present and peace prevails, we still don't give them much credit, assuming instead that the warring parties don't really want to kill each other anyway. Peacekeeping is one of those jobs in which success is hard to measure because it's mainly visible in the absence of failure.
I recently visited the front line between Syria and Israel, two countries technically at war, although calm has mostly prevailed on their border since 1974. If either country chose to launch an all-out invasion, the U.N. forces in the middle couldn't do much to stop it. Nevertheless, I see UNDOF, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force stationed here, as a success.
The Golan certainly didn't look like a war zone as I traveled south from Damascus. The villages were busy with people and traffic and surrounded by lush, green fields. Here and there, though, sprouting like poisonous mushrooms in the grass, I saw metal signs marked with crudely drawn skulls, denoting the presence of mines.
UNDOF's Camp Faouar looked like summer camp for grown-ups. The cabins were set among pine and cypress trees and decorated with national flags—Canadian, Polish, Japanese. There were tennis players on the court and men jogging along gravel paths that cut through patches of wood. The sky was blue and the snow-covered peak of Mount Hermon glinted in the sunlight above.
This was headquarters for the 1,185 soldiers tasked with enforcing the Syrian-Israeli cease-fire that followed the October (or Yom Kippur) War of 1973. Inside the command center, Maj. Siegfried Perr, who is Austrian and wore a blue beret, gave me a slide show briefing. He showed me lines upon lines upon lines: borders at various dates, lines of advance in various wars, lines of withdrawal. Two of the lines marked the so-called Area of Separation, a narrow, 45-mile-long strip of land that runs from the heights of Mount Hermon in the north to Wadi al-Raqid, which is below sea level, in the south. Neither country may have military equipment or personnel in this area. On its side, Israel has built a six-and-a-half-foot-high "technical fence," Maj. Perr said, which sets off an alarm if it is touched. From the Syrian side, though, other than a checkpoint on the road, there is no obvious sign that you have entered the zone. The area is home to more than 50,000 Syrian civilians, up from 5,000 in 1974, and benefits from new roadways and government-funded construction.
Other than patrolling the Area of Separation, the things UNDOF does may seem small. They are the sorts of things development experts call "confidence-building measures," which would be easy to dismiss as so much U.N. jargon. But they make daily life more palatable for ordinary people, which is not something that should be dismissed.
UNDOF provides medical assistance to local civilians who come asking for it. It also does demining work, ridding the landscape of the bitter crop sown by both sides in 1967 and 1973. Mines still sometimes kill local villagers and their livestock and have been responsible for some of the 49 UNDOF deaths since 1974.
UNDOF also helps people cross the border. When Israel captured the Golan in 1967, Syrian villagers came with the territory. They number some 20,000 today and are mostly of the Druse sect. Young men from these communities sometimes travel to study in Damascus. Brides may also cross to join their new husbands, a choice that usually means they will never see their own families again. And, as of the last few months, apple trucks have been allowed to cross, bringing produce from the Golan to market in Syria. In a rare show of cooperation between the two countries, Syria is importing about 7,000 tons of apples grown by Golan Druses.
So, what is UNDOF up against? I'll give two examples. One is the town of Quneitra. Unlike the rest of the Area of Separation, Syria has preserved Quneitra as a ghost town. It had suffered damage in 1967, when Israel first seized it along with the rest of the Golan Heights. Syrian forces shelled it in subsequent years, and it was the site of fierce fighting during the October War, changing hands several times. The subsequent cease-fire required Israel to hand Quneitra back to Syria. What happened next remains the subject of a propaganda war. Syria says that all the houses in the town were systematically destroyed by Israel, while Israel says the destruction was the result of the preceding battles. In his briefing, Maj. Perr said that "as a provocative act it was flattened and destroyed by the IDF before it was returned to Syria," but asked about this later, his force commander told me merely that there were competing claims: that Quneitra was destroyed during the wars, that the Israelis did it just before their withdrawal, and even that the Syrians did it after the withdrawal to burnish their monument to Israeli perfidy.
I couldn't read any tales from Quneitra itself. Aside from a church, a mosque, and a heavily damaged hospital, the town is a field of rubble heaps. Hundreds of homes rest in eerily similar piles. A large slab, once a flat roof, juts up from almost every one.
Whatever the source of the destruction, Quneitra has been frozen in this state for clearly political aims. Lest there be any doubt, the sign in broken English on the hospital makes it clear: "Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target!" This preservation of defeat represents feelings about history and loss that I find difficult to understand. Isn't the enshrining of destroyed Quneitra a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face? What kind of society shows off its failures this way? Can anyone imagine Americans preserving the destroyed World Trade Towers as ruins? The citizens of an industrious, optimistic, successful civilization would find the very idea ridiculous. Whatever else it is, this preserving of wounds is a weapon of the weak, a last resort of the defeated. But it also suggests a profound unwillingness to move on from war to peace.
My second example occurred last week, following the first violent border incident in two years. (The last took place in early 2003, when Israeli soldiers killed a Syrian civilian down in Wadi al-Raqid, where the Area of Separation is only 220 yards wide.) This time, a Palestinian from a refugee camp inside Syria managed to cross the border and fire on Israeli soldiers, who captured him. Afterward, according to a wire service report, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman blamed Syria for "allowing" the infiltration, although Israel's alarmed fence and vastly superior defense forces apparently didn't detect him either. The spokesman called the incident a "grave violation" of the security arrangements in place and said, "The Syrians should not be allowing armed terrorists to cross the border."
This verbal transformation of lone gunman into proto-invasion shows another leadership with a taste for escalation. We may give U.N. peacekeepers a hard time, but their daily work on this border goes a long way toward keeping the war in the realm of words.
From: Elisabeth Eaves
Subject: Are We Free Yet?
Posted Thursday, April 21, 2005, at 6:26 AM PT
Today's slide show: Fighters for freedom.
When you are sitting in a bar after midnight, sipping arrack and listening to a violin and synthesizer duo, and the bar is built into a 500-year-old stone home in the walled city of Damascus, and the duo takes a break and the speakers blast the Scorpions ballad—I'm not kidding—"Winds of Change," it would be easy, in spite of oneself, to get sentimental about a Syrian glasnost. Especially after discovering that the night life in Damascus is rather good, and not just good in the debauched way of a tomorrow-we-may-die sort of crowd, or the aggressive way of behind-closed-doors elites, but actually relaxing and fun. Outside on Thursday nights, droves of young men and women, Christian and Muslim, stroll the streets late into the night, moving from shwarma stand to art gallery to DVD store on al-Qaimariyya Street, or bar-hopping near Bab Touma, the Gate of Thomas.
Even when not under the influence of arrack and the Scorpions, it was tempting to be optimistic when the thing I kept hearing from Syrians was that things would change for the better because they simply had to. Mounzer Alkubeh, who is a guitarist, composer, and nightclub owner, told
me simply: "It will happen. There is no other choice." This had an alluring logic. But then Alkubeh was about as apolitical as a Syrian can be, with concerns ranging from intellectual property rights to the schlocky music on Arab satellite TV.
The city's many Internet cafes also lent to an illusion of openness. At the Aural Internet Service in gritty central Damascus, I accessed the most recent report on Syria from Human Rights Watch, opening it in both English and Arabic. I brought up Syria Comment, the English-language blog of American professor Joshua Landis, who lives in Damascus and speaks freely about the regime. I opened a handful of critical news stories about Syria and printed a story supporting an expatriate dissident, which the manager handed over to me without batting an eyelid.
But the experience of those criticizing the regime tells a different story. All4Syria, an electronic newsletter run by Ayman Abdalnour, sends out daily independent commentary in Arabic and has become highly influential. It reaches, by Abdalnour's estimate, some 75,000 readers once the 15,200 subscribers pass it on, and, according to Landis, it "is a leading venue for reformers to complain, air grievances, and spin." Specific proposals it has published have come about more than once since it was founded in 2003. For instance, it had urged the release of 312 Kurds detained in April 2004; on March 30 of this year the president pardoned them. All4Syria has also called for the granting of citizenship to the country's so-called stateless Kurds. Damascus tea-leaf readers now believe this will happen when the Regional Baath Party Congress convenes later this spring.
In other words, All4Syria makes too much of an impact. The government began to block it in April of last year, shortly after it criticized the Baath Party directly. This points to the element missing from the apparent openness: legal protections. In 2000, Bashar Assad inherited the presidency from his father, Hafez Assad, an admirer of the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Bashar initiated a thaw, releasing political prisoners from jail, allowing independent newspapers to publish, and letting reformists hold public meetings. This "spring" lasted one year, after which the meetings were called off and government critics thrown in jail. Of 10 high-level arrests made in 2001—among them two members of parliament, an economics professor at Aleppo University, and a human rights lawyer—all remain jailed, said human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni.
What is going on now is a lot of testing of "red lines," as everyone in Damascus seems to call them. People are saying things and publishing things. But many of them, like al-Bounni and Ammar Abdulhamid, who heads the minority-rights Tharwa Project, are engaged in a harrowing pas de deux with the government. Al-Bounni and Abdulhamid are both barred from leaving the country. Intelligence officials have interrogated Abdulhamid three times since January. Al-Bounni has seen his siblings and friends thrown in jail for peaceful political speech. No one testing the limits knows when the next crackdown might come or what will provoke it.
I met al-Bounni in a low-ceilinged office crowded with boxes. Demanding human rights is not very lucrative, and he is not a popular lawyer in ordinary court cases because he refuses to pay off judges, so he was giving up the space to save money. Over thick Arabic coffee, he laid out a few of the things he is fighting for: an end to political arrests (Human Rights Watch estimates that thousands of Syrian prisoners of conscience remain in jail); an end to torture in jail; an end to the law that says security officials may not be prosecuted. And he wants Syria to have an independent judiciary and free elections.
He has little patience with the debate over whether the president has enough control to make changes. "Legally, technically, he has the power to change. Militarily, he could do it. If he wants to, he could do it in 24 hours," al-Bounni said. He still holds out hope that the Assad regime will see that change is the only option and undertake it peacefully. "We hope it understands that what has happened in the world means it must change. It's not just the United States saying so, it's the whole world," he said. "But up until now, they have given no signs that they understand."
International pressure on Syria has increased dramatically in recent months, for example with France and the United States teaming up to pass U.N. Resolution 1559, calling for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, and with the European Union threatening economic sanctions.
Asked how he and others like him survive their tango, al-Bounni was quick to credit international attention. "The regime is waiting for the world to close its eyes, and then it might put us in jail." Right now he said, "We can speak illegally. We are safe because of the international community."
Abdulhamid, who often despairs of the government on his eloquent English-language blog, is not entirely sure how he stays out of jail, though extensive media coverage of him outside Syria has certainly helped. Also, his mother is a Syrian movie star. Recently, though, she too was interrogated about his activities. "It may be the fact that we are focusing on a regional issue [minority rights] rather than a specifically Syrian one," he speculated. "It may be the fact that we have European funding or that we're blatantly breaking the law."
He is not entirely without hope. "We're seeing the makings of a velvet revolution," he said. But not in a Gorky Park sort of way. "The end is not going to be as grand and eye-catching as in Eastern Europe. We have too much baggage. We have Islamicism as a complicating factor." Nevertheless, he said, "This is the beginning of the end. The Internet and satellite TV have launched it."