News Round Up (Nov. 6, 05) & Opposition Report
German Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis has summoned six senior-most intelligence officers, including President Assad's brother-in-law Gen. Assef Shawkat, for interrogation at the Monteverde headquarters northeast of Beirut of the U.N. commission investigating the assassination of Lebanon's 5-time Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.Walid Jumblat: "I'm against a regime change in Syria that hawks in the U.S. administration want," he said.
But the Assad regime seems reluctant to allow Syrian witnesses or suspects to be interrogated outside Damascus, offering to let the U.N. commission question any Syrian it picks in venues to be chosen by Mehlis in or around the Syrian capital with the U.N. flag hoisted overhead.
Mehlis passed the summons to the Assad regime in Damascus through the U.N. secretariat in New York on Wednesday, using the powers given to him by Security Council Resolution 1636 to question any Syrian he wants at the location and modality of his own choice.
In addition to Gen. Shawkat, who is the overall chief of Syria's military intelligence service, Mehlis has summoned to Monteverde Maj. Gen. Bahjat Suleiman, former chief of Syria's internal intelligence apparatus and Brig. Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed Syria's military intelligence in Lebanon when Hariri was murdered in Beirut Feb. 14, according to Al Hayat. Ghazaleh's assistant in south Beirut, Brig. Gen. Jameh Jameh, also was listed on the Mehlis summons along with Abdul Karim Abbas, who served with the Palestinian branch of Syria's general intelligence service, and telecommunications and Internet expert Zafer Youssef, Al Hayat said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says: "President Bashar announced, after my latest meeting with him in Damascus, a number of positive steps and stances." "I trust that his wisdom will lead to a breakthrough in the current situation," said Mubarak, who has acted as a mediator between the embattled Syrian leader and western powers turning on the heat on Damascus in order to catch Hariri's assassins. Mubarak and Assad discussed the Hariri murder probe in Damascus on October 28 with the Syrian president pledging after the meeting that his government would cooperate with the U.N. inquiry.
Moussa to visit Syria amid international pressure on Damascus
President Chirac has renewed his call for Syria to show "full and complete cooperation" with the U.N. inquiry.
Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani said, "According to what President Assad told me, they are ready to give positive and total cooperation,"
Piling on the pressure
by Massoud A. Derhally
November 6, 2005
"I consider that the UN Security Council resolution is a warning to Syria to cooperate with the investigation committee and this means that if Syria insists on not cooperating or stalls … then sanctions can be rationalised," Riad Al Turk, a veteran politician and Syrian opposition activist jailed for 18 years by the Baathist regime, told Arabian Business....
"The resolution puts the Syrian government in a bind, either to surrender to the Mehlis process, as Lebanon has done sometime in April, or remain under a political ban, which is likely to grow," says Chibli Mallat, an international law professor currently a fellow at Yale University.
But in an interview with Arabian Business last week, Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister says: "The original draft of the resolution was very harsh.
It was toned down. Toning it down and taking out the threat of specific sanctions is an indicator that there are countries on the security council who see at least partially, or fully, the Syrian point of view.
"One maybe has to adopt new tactics or a new approach to ensure that full cooperation is reflected in the next report."
To some extent the prevailing anxiousness surrounding Resolution 1636 is reminiscent of Resolution 1441 and the mounting pressure on Baghdad in the run up to the Iraq war.
"The resolution is bad news, buts its good news that America didn't get its main terrorism article," says Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria who is currently in Damascus. "But," he adds, "they stuck it in the back door," in reference to the number of times the word terrorism was used
in the resolution.
"The people, who wanted the maximum pressure on Syria got their way. They had to sacrifice on the terrorism stuff, but they got the majors. They are going to manage to destabilise Syria this way. The fear [in Syria] is that the West doesn't know what it wants; it doesn't have an endgame," Landis explained.
The fact remains that president Assad has not been implicated in the Hariri investigation, but there are clauses in the resolution which suggest that it could go up to the president. "If they decide he's responsible or in the know then he could be swept up in this whole thing. Now if you change Bashar, Maher and Assef Shawkat, then that is regime change," says Landis. "You can't really separate this investigation and let the chips fall where they may on the Mehlis report and not call this regime change in this situation. That's what has this government in complete chaos right now."
But Dardari is entirely dismissive of such scenarios. "Regime change or no regime change, this is a question for the Syrian people to decide," says the deputy premier.
"Syrians are realising that Syria is targeted; its role in the region is targeted. The language that we hear sometimes in Lebanon that we don't want sanctions on the Syrian people and we want good relations with the Syrian people, but the Syrian regime is a different story. Not many people are buying that in Syria," he adds.
US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice "was talking about things that have nothing to do with the Mehlis report", Dardari said in reference to Rice's speech at the UN. "She was talking about regional issues; Iraq, Palestine and terrorism. The politicisation is there," he adds.
Asked what he would tell Rice if he had the opportunity to meet with her, Dardari says: "I would tell her there are so many interests in common between Syria and the US, if the US puts American interests first rather than Israel's interest. Dialogue between the two countries is the best means for dealing with the issues that maybe still problematic between them."
Palpably clear is Syria's recognition it is gradually being cornered and that the case against it is mounting. And while it proclaims its innocence, it has nonetheless begun or announced its intension to adopt a number of measures as part and parcel of what it says is its cooperation with the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) of German judge Detlev Mehlis leading the probe into Hariri's assassination.
"We have to define what is cooperation and make sure that whatever we provide is agreed upon and approved by the commission because last time we had a gentleman agreement with Mr. Mehlis; with very good intentions we thought that we did provide the necessary cooperation," Dardari explains.
"We don't count on a radical change in the American position. But one can say that there are countries that are willing to help. They believe in Syria's innocence and it's our job to give them more evidence," he added.
The French don't have the same agenda as the Americans, said the deputy premier who has been touted as possibly the next prime minister in Syria. "If we can demonstrate that our cooperation is full, candid and transparent, this would influence the French position to our favour and would definitely strengthen the position of Russia and China who are trying to defuse the crisis."
Hours and days before the Security Council convened, Damascus signalled it would be looking into expediting the naturalisation of 80,000 Kurds residing in the country, in addition to forming its own investigative committee to look into suspects that may be implicated in the Hariri assassination. President Assad has also indicated he would push forward a new party law, which he promised at the Baath conference last June.
There are also rumours spreading in the Syrian capital that prisoners referred to as the three of the Damascus Spring; Riad Saif, a 55-year-old MP, Aref Dalilah, a university professor, and Maamoun Al Homsi, a Damascus MP, will be released.
"Assad is clearly making some gestures towards the opposition and towards society in an attempt to win their backing in what is going to be a big a fight with the West," said Landis.
The opposition, which has largely been fragmented, clearly sees this as an opportunity. The Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change, a document signed by several Syrian parties and individuals days before the Mehlis report was released on October 21 is testimony, according to observers, of the closing of ranks of the all the different splinter groups.
But the disunity of the opposition in the past stems from two reasons, according to Riad Al Turk, the godfather of the Syrian opposition. It's because of "the terror of the regime who imprisoned, killed and exiled and so forth, the constraint of political activism, and the main reason which is that this regime has been in power for three or four decades. The world has changed and it is imperative that political parties change," Turk explains.
The great fear of the government is that Riad Saif will emerge as the leader of a united opposition party. For many in and outside of Syria he has been the great martyr of the Damascus Spring. A Sunni, a successful businessman, and a member of parliament who can speak for the Sunni merchants — Saif certainly represents more than a thorn in the side of the present regime.
"The question is whether the opposition can brand him as a spokesperson and turn him into a Nelson Mandela," says Landis. "They have been very bad at this because they are all jealous of each other, they all have different interests and they don't want any one person to become the man. That's their great weakness."
But while some in Syria hope for Saif's release, others are pessimistic. Anwar Al Buni, a major human rights lawyer who is defending Saif, believes talk of his client's release is a result of conjecture by people who wish to sway government behaviour.
"I don't foresee the release of Riad Saif because the situation does not permit it, given that the authorities are not allowing any kind of gathering, no matter how small it is. If there is a will to release Riad Saif it will part of a wide release of [people]," Buni told Arabian Business.
"If there is a release it has to be inclusive of everyone in prison and without any exceptions allowing political expression of everyone. The human rights situation is in a state of deterioration and there are a lot pressures on activists."
Riad Al Turk, the veteran politician and Syrian opposition activist, was unequivocal in his condemnation of the Assad regime in an interview with Arabian Business, calling on the president to resign as part of his plan to transform the embattled country into a democracy.
He has devised and presented (on television) a detailed plan for change: it begins with the resignation of president Assad; the head of parliament then assumes power in accordance with the constitution, and the army is responsible for maintaining security and all security services are frozen. The heads of these services
are removed and brought under the control of the military headquarters.
Under Turk's plan, the interim leader will then cooperate with the Security Council and agree to hand over suspects and those accused. Then an interim government is formed and arranges for elections to take place to form a new parliament. This will be done under democratic principles.
Turk tells Arabian Business: "I embrace anyone who is able to rid me of this regime."
Time will tell whether he succeeds.
Thanassis Cambanis of the Boston Globe has written an excellent article on the Syrian opposition. He gets it right.
In Syria, a sagging opposition
Dissidents see no gain in a fallen regime.
November 6, 2005
DAMASCUS -- Authoritarian Syria has so thoroughly quashed organized opposition that even the most committed dissidents find themselves in a depressing bind: They're willing to risk prison by speaking out against the regime but are so convinced of their own weakness that they don't want the regime to fall, fearing that only chaos would follow.
Haitham al-Maleh, a 74-year-old human rights lawyer considered one of the most influential opposition leaders, neatly sums up the plight. ''We have a problem: The opposition is weak," he said.
Despite his visceral anger at the government he calls a fascist dictatorship, he doesn't want to see it collapse, because he doesn't think there's anything to replace it.
''We believe in change step by step," Maleh said. ''We don't want to jump and break our necks."
The opposition's state of disarray and powerlessness testifies to a successful Ba'ath Party strategy under the Assad family dynasty, which after 35 years in power has left Syrians with no real political alternative. The dictatorship outlawed competing political parties and also all social and political institutions not under its direct control, from labor unions to sport clubs.
Such a dispirited opposition poses a great challenge to Syrian dissidents, internal party reformists, and US policy makers, who espouse a policy of changing the regime or its behavior but have no powerful partner in Syrian society. Proponents of regime change in Syria would have to look elsewhere -- perhaps in Syria's ruling elite, in the military, even in the underground Islamist Muslim Brotherhood -- for a strong hand to replace the Assad family clique.
Under the loose surveillance of Syria's secret police, those dissidents who aren't in prison or were recently released talk in public and on the record with surprising candor about the corruption of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Syria's dissidents have spent long terms in jail for speaking out, but despite their new high-tech tools -- cellphones, e-mail, and web logs -- they languish virtually unknown to the Syrian public and the outside world.
Dissidents are allowed to talk to the international media but not to hold meetings, organize political parties, or publish criticism inside Syria's borders.
Syrian intelligence agents tap their phones and watch their homes. But the dissidents think the government allows them to talk to the foreign media because it considers the opposition harmless and wants to present an image of political openness to the international community.
The opposition includes Ba'ath Party insiders who moderate critical websites and forums; television actors renowned for their starring roles on daytime soap operas and their veiled references to the social decay of the calcified Ba'athist culture; teenage bloggers and bearded musicians, human rights lawyers, journalists, and satellite television commentators. Continued...
Also see this interview with Anwar al-Bunni,"Dissidents despair at the end of Damascus Spring," in the Daily Telegraph by Harry de Quetteville(23/10/2005).