Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Current Situation Regarding The Lebanese Presidency

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is under intense pressure to resign following the charges against four of his security chiefs. Many MPs and opposition activists are calling for his resignation. Nevertheless, Lahoud has reiterated his decision to stay on as president until his term expires in November 2007. Whether that may happen or not is up for debate.

In Paris this week, members of the anti-Syrian majority in the Lebanese Parliament, particularly majority leader Saad Al-Hariri and Druze leader Walid Junblatt, have held discussions regarding the election of the next president. US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman has met up with Al-Hariri and Junblatt in France in an effort to find a suitable replacement to Lahoud.

The Lebanese constitution explicates that the president of the republic must be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the chamber of deputies a Shia Muslim. The constitution also states that the deputies in parliament must elect the president. Since Saad Al-Hariri controls the majority of seats, he will play one of the biggest roles in determining the next president. However, how long that may take isn't entirely up to him.

When the Lebanese constitution was amended last September under Syrian influence, it was meant to extend Lahoud's term for another three years. Since the president is only entitled to sit one six-year term, Lahoud's term would have expired last November since he took office in 1998. However, as a result of the amendment, Lahoud has until November 2007 to vacate the presidency. Saad Al-Hariri and Walid Junblatt are advocates of ensuring Lahoud's demise before the additional three years are up.

Getting Lahoud out of office may come in different ways. For starters, Lahoud can simply resign if he wishes to, but he has made it clear that he intends to stay on and complete his term in office. However, An-Nahar Newspaper announced that if Lahoud is indicted by Mehlis in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, he might resign. Lahoud has continuously stated that he has no blood on his hands and thus, it would be expected that even if he is indicted, he will challenge the indictment and refuse to step down. Lebanon's parliament would then have to decide whether it wanted to go ahead with proceedings to impeach the president.

The constitution states that in order to impeach the president, a two-thirds majority is required in the Chamber of Deputies. This could cause trouble for Saad Al-Hariri and his allies. Al-Hariri's bloc controls 72 of the 128 seats and thus, only 56%. Michel Aoun's coalition controls 21 seats and therefore 16%, while the pro-Syria faction holds 35 seats, which means they control 27%. Thus, it is obvious that if Al-Hariri and Aoun were to join forces, they could impeach Lahoud. However, strained relations have emerged between the two.

When Michel Aoun returned to Lebanon following a 15-year exile in France, many had expectations that he would join the established Syrian opposition, but before he even arrived in Beirut, some were criticising him. Aoun and Junblatt were the first to kick it off with Junblatt describing the General's return as a tsunami, while Aoun struck back at the Druze leader by calling him a taxi driver. As time went on, Al-Hariri and Aoun fell out as well. Aoun began making it obvious that he believed Al-Hariri's political methods were corrupt. It led to a division within the Syrian opposition, with some analysts believing that Aoun had struck a deal with Damascus.

Aoun has indicated that he may desire the chance to become Lebanon's next president. He may even be the favourite choice among the Americans and the French because they believe his attitude towards disarming Hizbullah is efficient, although it is not known how he may plan to carry that out. However, it has been reported that Jacques Chirac might not be keen on him. During their meetings, both Al-Hariri and Junblatt expressed their anxieties regarding Aoun's desire for the presidency. They figured that it might not be the best idea to have one general succeed another. There are reports that an attempt at reconciliation between Al-Hariri and Aoun is being discussed. This may even be brought up when Saad Al-Hariri meets President George Bush in New York this week.

Believing that Aoun may prove to be a capable leader in implementing UNSC Resolution 1559, both Bush and Chirac may press Al-Hariri to resolve his differences with Aoun and support his candidacy for the presidency. Even if they do reach an agreement, it still may not be that easy for Lahoud's impeachment to go through.

Aoun's coalition is made up of Christians, some of whom had close ties to Damascus. Thus, it would seem difficult for those who had worked with Syria to turn against Lahoud since these deputies are close associates, or in some cases, relatives of the president. The only way out of this dilemma is probably to reach a compromise, with the possibility of Damascus being involved. The fact that Lahoud still has close ties with Syria indicates that Damascus still has a role in Lebanese politics. After all, they have the power to demonstrate any unhappiness with the Lebanese government by closing the Syrian-Lebanese border, as they did earlier this summer.

Therefore, it seems that Washington, Paris and Damascus may play a role in finding a successor. One factor that many in the Lebanese government are considering is that they cannot chose a president who is vehemently opposed to the Syrian regime. They would have to choose someone like Fouad Siniora, who is part of the coalition against Syrian interference in Lebanon, but not necessarily against the Syrian government itself. This fact may pretty much rule out Samir Geagea's chances of becoming the next president, which is if he had any intentions of running. On the other hand, some suggest that Aoun has hinted that he may be willing to set aside the events of the past, such as his war against Syria towards the end of the civil war, and reconcile his differences with Damascus. The fact that he has joined forces with allies of Damascus may be testament to that fact.

The priority right now for many is to get Lahoud to resign his post. Washington has made it clear that it doesn't see Lahoud's presence on the Lebanese political stage as relevant anymore. The fact that both Lahoud and Al-Hariri are going to New York to represent Lebanon separately makes it clear that one of them isn't welcome. Since most members of the international community, especially Washington and Paris, will hold meetings with Saad Al-Hariri, it makes it obvious that Lahoud's legitimacy is fading dramatically, if it has not faded away completely by now.

Since it is blatant that Syria can influence Lebanese policy through its borders, since it only opened them after Prime Minister Siniora promised not to allow Lebanon to become a base for opposition against Syria, it is clear that Damascus also needs to show its approval of the next president. Despite the differences between the Al-Assad government and Al-Hariri's bloc, reconciliation must take place between the two leaders in order for Lebanon to have a smooth transition of power from Lahoud to the next president.

By now, it may be that the following factors may have to be taken into consideration when selecting the next president:

  1. the Lebanese people in order to avoid the current status of internal tension;
  2. Washington;
  3. Paris, since it is Lebanon's closest European ally;
  4. the Al-Hariri bloc in parliament;
  5. Aoun's faction;
  6. Cardinal Sfeir since most Maronites look up to him;
  7. and Damascus.

If Lahoud manages to stay on until his three years are up, then Aoun's faction may not be as important, since a reconciliation is only imperative if Al-Hariri wanted Aoun's support to impeach Lahoud. Nevertheless, the days ahead for both Lebanon and Syria are filled with curiosity. It is very important for the Lebanese, in order to avoid instability, to address these seven factors immediately so as to be prepared for when the Mehlis Report comes out.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Will Bashar Repeat His Father's Surprise?

Many news sources have indicated that President Bashar Al-Assad will not head the Syrian delegation to the United Nations' summit in New York next week. Although this appears to be the case, the official Syrian news agency SANA has not ruled his visit out completely:
Syria Does not Confirm President Assad Participation at UN Summit
New York, September 6, (SANA) –

Syrian senior official to the UN announced on Tuesday there was no official confirmation that President Bashar al-Assad would head the Syrian delegation to UN summit in New York.
“We did not receive any official confirmation from the Syrian capital on whether President Bashar al-Assad will head the Syrian delegation to the United Nations Summit that will open September 14,” Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations told the Syrian T.V. this evening.
Faysal Miqdad said that Syria was showing a great interest in this summit and the international action in general noting that the Syrian delegation in New York was following up standing political preparations for the summit.
Miqdad hoped the international interests in the summit would not be retreated following the nature catastrophe that hit the United States which occupied the US public opinion as well the international interest.
Syria’s permanent representative to the UN voiced at the same time “Syria’s strong sympathy with victims of this grave incident.”
S. Younes.
Many sources have suggested that President Al-Assad wants to stay away from New York due to reports from people close to Mehlis who are indicating that major elements within the Syrian regime were involved in the Al-Hariri assassination. Rumors are circulating that the President could be held by US officials if there is evidence that he was involved in the assassination. Others are saying that the President is fearful of a coup by top officials in the regime who are upset with his handling of the situation following international pressure to withdraw from Lebanon. Could these really be reasons for the President not to attend the summit?
First of all, the Mehlis report has sought a 40-day extension according to news sources. Until the final report is published, nobody can accuse anyone of anything. These reports that Mehlis has concluded the majority of his work and now has a clear idea of who was most likely behind the assassination have no credibility until he comes to Syria, carries out his interviews, and then presents his findings. As of right now, the President has no reason to avoid New York if this is the case. Simultaneously, the United States doesn't have the power to detain the President because there are no charges against him with regards to this inquiry.
A recent article I read suggested that the President was fearful of a coup in his country. If this information is coming from the same man who defected from the Syrian regime to give evidence to Mehlis, I think we can all count that it is as bogus as his testimony to the German investigator. I would like to see the bank account of this defector before and after he fled Syria in order to see whether he had been tipped heavily.
I haven't ruled out President Al-Assad's visit to New York completely. The fact is that most of the news articles saying that he will not be attending are coming from Lebanese papers. No official report has come from Damascus. Some officials in Syria were upset to hear these claims since they were hoping that this would be the President's chance to give his case before the world.
I suggest we all go back in time to just after February 7, 1999. King Hussein of Jordan had just died and world leaders were preparing to head off to Amman to attend the state funeral. Everyone was doubtful as to whether President Hafez Al-Assad, one of Hussein's rivals, would actually attend the funeral. On the morning of the funeral, Syrians still had no idea. Then, all of a sudden, the Syrian delegation arrived in the Jordanian capital. Newspapers from around the world had Al-Assad on their front pages. Considering how many world leaders were at the funeral, his face stood out the most because nobody believed he would go.
The wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was just as surprised as others who attended the funeral to see him. According to a story I heard, she was so surprised that he came that she tried to get a glimpse of the President, but his bodyguards kept her away.
Could this be the case once again? If President Al-Assad were to surprise the world with his visit to New York, accompanied by his popular wife, it would send so many signals to those who doubt him. For starters, he could claim that despite the accusations against him, he stood his ground and faced the international world regardless of what other world leaders thought about him. He would also be sending a message to the Syrian opposition in the USA that they shouldn't count their chickens before they have hatched.
Even if Condoleeza Rice decides to isolate him by not inviting him to a meeting of Arab leaders, he could undermine her efforts by meeting with his Arab counterparts before she does. Even if George W. Bush refuses to invite him to an early reception, he could outsmart the world's most powerful man with his professional speaking skills while giving a speech. Everyone knows Bush isn't the best at speeches, but Al-Assad has a tendency to sound like a head of state when he speaks.
I, personally, would be very happy if President Bashar Al-Assad attended this summit with his wife. This may be his chance to state Syria's case before the world. After all, he wasn't so worried when he attended the Pope's funeral in April.
In a previous post, I suggested that there may be a deal between Damascus and Washington. Maybe it is true, maybe it is not. If there is no deal, then I hope the President attends and addresses the General Assembly. Regardless of what Mehlis says, his report won't be coming out for another 40 days and we will never really know the truth anyway. Until then, I hope another surprise is going to be repeated next week.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Like fathers, like sons: could another deal be in the making? Posted by Picasa

Washington's Approach to Syria

I don't know about you, but I suspect there is a deal going on between the Bush Administration and Syria. Those of you who have continuously watched the news and read the papers may think that I'm just delusional. You may be asking yourselves: why would the Americans, who have tried so hard to destabilize the Syrian regime through international pressure, actually want to cut a deal with it? Throughout this essay, I will try to answer that question.
First of all, what have the Americans learnt from Iraq? Well, their plans for post-war reconstruction aren't that impressive. More troops have had to be sent to Iraq to try and promote stability. Do they really want to have the same problems in Syria? After all, if the Syrian regime collapsed, the Sunni majority will rise, probably ally itself with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq and thus, Syria will become another base for warfare. This is the worst-case scenario. I don't even think the Americans are considering this because I sense that they are already working with President Bashar Al-Assad.
I have already made the suggestion that the Sunnis would rise to power in Syria if the Baathists fell, but what I need to clarify is how they would rise to power. The Sunnis who resent the Alawite-dominated Baathist government in Syria the most are the urban ones. The rural Sunnis have forged an alliance with the Alawites in the Baath Party, but according to recent statistics, the urban Sunnis are growing in number much more than the rural Sunnis. Thus, if the regime fell, they would be the obvious choice to fill the government's shoes. However, after more than four decades of anger and resentment, they may try to capture the state and hang on to it by any means necessary. Remember, where there is a lot of anger and resentment, there is a chance of extremism emerging. If that were the case, Syria may lose its secular image. The Americans must have taken note of this when considering possibilities for Syria's future.
Another factor the Americans are watching closely is secularism. Would they rather see a secular Syria or a religious Syria? A religious Syria could end up becoming much more anti-American than the current regime. In fact, the Syrian government has projected itself as anti-American recently in order to build up itself as the last bulwark of Arab nationalism. It is more of a tactic than a policy. Even if the Americans were to bring down the Baath Party in Syria, I doubt they would be supported by the people since a majority of Syrians tend to be more opposed to the Americans than their own government. The hostility against the USA would most likely increase in a religious state. This is all the more reason to seek a compromise with the current regime.
I am sure you have been hearing in the news that Bush administration officials have been meeting with Syrian opposition leaders. This is merely a signal to the Syrian government to change its behaviour. Washington knows that change can only come from within Syria and not with opposition leaders operating outside of Syria. Take, for example, a family. If a family has a fight, does it ask somebody from outside the family to solve its problem? No, the family members work together to solve the problem. Farid Ghadri's plan of forming a transitional parliament to oversee the reconstruction of the Syrian government is not going to help anything. Washington knows that it cannot put these people, who have very small links to the Syrian people, in charge because that will create more instability since they will be seen as Bush's lackies. In other words, if they want to avoid another Iraq scenario, they cannot consider an opposition whose base of support within Syria is miniscule.
What Washington is doing is pressuring Syria to reform itself. In some cases, this has worked. The Syrian government is engaging with people like Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Baathist reformer who wants to work with the President to bring about reform. You see, Washington knows that President Bashar Al-Assad is a reformer and that he can be dealt with. They understand that if he left the political scene, chaos would most likely ensue regardless of any well-thought-out plans.
Before Dr. Bashar succeeded his father, President Hafez Al-Assad wanted guarantees from the Americans that they will accept him. Of course, this was never publicised, but this was the case. The Americans gave Bashar legitimacy. They understand that he has been restricted by elements of his father's old guard in his pursuit of change. A primary example of this is when he was pressured by these elements to bring an end to the Damascus Spring in 2001. In some ways, the pressure on Syria may work to his advantage and the Americans are bearing this in mind.
Following US and French-led international pressure to get Syria out of Lebanon, the government of President Al-Assad came under pressure to accomodate the winds of change in Damascus. Due to this pressure, major figures in the old guard announced their resignation from the government and the ruling Baath Party at the June 2005 Baath Party conference. The result has been President Al-Assad's further consolidation of power. It is doubtful if this would have happened without pressure from Washington.
Following Secretary Rice's visit to Beirut, rumors suggested that her meeting with pro-Syrian President Lahoud indicated a deal was being done with Syria. She couldn't, of course, go to Damascus due to the atmosphere of the political situation. Many are now suggesting that there is a deal with Washington not to implicate Syria in the Al-Hariri assassination. Regardless of such a deal, I have maintained that I don't believe Al-Hariri's assassination was sanctioned by the Syrian government.
You have read my arguments, but there is something else to this situation. Why does the USA appear to be such an enemy of Syria in the media? My opinion is that for some people, the truth hurts. You see, the Americans cannot be seen to cozy up to Israel's primary enemy. You all know the stories of why the USA has a soft spot for the Jewish lobby and this is a reason why. But what is the big deal about Syria that the Americans care so much about? Simply stated, the Americans want to get Syria and Israel to sign a peace deal. A peace deal with Syria would hasten peace with the Palestinians and the possibility of a stable Middle East, which would make the USA's wealthy allies happy. The Americans knew that the chances of a peace deal between Israel and President Hafez Al-Assad's government were slim, so now they are trying to help Dr. Bashar install new blood in his government in order to change the Syrian policy to favour peace with Israel.
I could, after all, be wrong on this issue. If the Mehlis report puts blame of Al-Hariri's assassination on Syria directly, then I will reconsider my opinions on the matter. Such a report would mean that the possibility of Washington working with Damascus wouldn't be very convincing. In my opinion, change can only come from within and I believe the Americans know this. I even believe they knew this before the Iraq invasion, but unlike Iraq, Syria doesn't have a plethora of oil to be pumped. In that case, the risk of chaos didn't matter because the reward appeared to have been bigger, but there is no reward in an unstable Syria.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Syria's Response to International Pressure

It has been said that how people react to a crisis helps to shape the character of that person. No other test than the recent Lebanese crisis has helped people understand just what kind of leader President Bashar Al-Assad is and what kind of government he is leading. For many, Lebanon was going to test the strength of the Damascus regime. It has in many ways. Articles circulating in the wake of the international response to Al-Hariri's assassination and calls for Syria's withdrawal reported both Chirac and Sharon preparing for the possible collapse of President Al-Assad's regime. It is still to be seen whether those events in neighbouring Lebanon will have a bigger impact in Syria.
Research has helped us comprehend the intentions of President Hafez Al-Assad during his tenure in office, but to many, Dr. Bashar Al-Assad remains an enigma. Through analysis on the responses of the Syrian government, particularly President Al-Assad, we can now formulate an opinion regarding the intentions of this government. The Lebanese situation is a good place to start with this analysis, so I shall first focus on the regime's response to UNSC Resolution 1559.
1559 was adopted on September 2, 2004 to help prevent Syria from extending pro-Syrian President Emille Lahoud's term in office for another three years, and in order to get Syria out of Lebanon. The initial reaction from Damascus was to ignore it. This was a confirmation from Syria that the policy of not giving in to international demands immediately was still on the agenda in Damascus. Syria has long wished to represent herself as the last bastion of Arab nationalism opposed to meddling by outsides in her affairs. However, Damascus did send its own message to the UN, advising it to stay out of its affairs since this issue solely involved Syrian-Lebanese relations. Two months later, after the Lebanese constitution was amended, Lahoud was re-elected as the President of Lebanon.
Fast forward to February 14, 2005. Anti-Syran Lebanese start blaming Syria for the assassination of Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, but Damascus denies these accusations, and in turn, blames Israel for provoking further anti-Syrian sentiment. The day of Al-Hariri's funeral and a day after the USA recalled its ambassador to Damascus, Syrian Prime Minister Naji Al-Otri meets with the Iranian government and a united front against American threats is established.
When pro-Syrian Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karameh announces the resignation of his government on February 21st, Lahoud reappoints him to form a new government. In fact, Syria doesn't formally respond to Lebanese calls for Syrian withdrawal until March 5th, almost three weeks later after Al-Hariri's assassination. In his speech to the People's Assembly, President Bashar Al-Assad announces a partial withdrawal of Syrian troops to the Bekaa Valley, defying President Bush's demands against 'half-hearted measures'.
The fact that Syria didn't carry out all the wishes of the international community for a long time suggests that it refuses to be told what to do. By sending this message, Syria wants to distinguish herself from her fellow Arab neighbours, who she may label as sell-outs. For example, despite Syria's isolation following the events in Beirut, many still respect the Damascus government for refusing to allow western powers to dictate to it what needs to be done and when. British MP George Galloway described the Damascus government as 'dignified' and urged it to remain steadfast.
It is true that Syria felt the pressure of the international community and left Lebanon, but she did so in her own way, without much regard for what western powers thought of her.
When Pope John Paul II died, Syria hadn't yet withdrawn all of her forces from Lebanon. People were doubtful whether President Bashar Al-Assad, seen as a controversial leader, would actually attend the funeral of the Pontiff. However, he defied the odds and headed for the Vatican. That, alone, sent a message to the world leaders around him that he had no plans to hide in a shell like Saddam Hussein, the man many in Washington like to compare him to. In truth, however, President Al-Assad is nothing like Saddam Hussein.
As Washington seized the moment over Lebanon to strike at Syria, other accusations soon followed. The Bush Administration began accusing Syria of not doing enough to prevent insurgents from crossing to Iraq on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Damascus government kept telling anyone who listened that it was very difficult to protect the whole border, and even provided evidence that in the past, Saddam Hussein had used the unprotected border to send trucks carrying bombs to Syria because of his opposition to the Damascus Baathists. The fact that Syria couldn't protect herself then meant that she couldn't protect America either. The Americans even refused to work with the Syrians to patrol the border. In an effort to get the USA to stop throwing baseless accusations at Damascus, the Al-Assad government announced that it was ceasing cooperation with the Americans. To many, this was a risk, but to Syria, it was a way to reassert its refusal to be talked down to.
Now President Bashar Al-Assad is preparing to go to New York for the UN World Summit. This sends yet another message to Washington that Syria refuses to be set aside. President Al-Assad is also sending another message to the international community: that despite the negative campaign against Syria throughout the year, he still wants to clean up that image and move Syria forward.
When drawing conclusions about Syria's response to international pressure, I can see that she refuses to be told what to do and she refuses to be left aside. The risks Damascus is taking in order to keep up with its aims are testament to why George Galloway described the Syrian government as 'dignified'.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Syria's Role in the Middle East

Flynt Leverett's Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial By Fire presents a good understanding of how President Bashar Al-Assad has managed to stick to the script laid out by his father. A big factor that Bashar needs to adhere to is how to manage Syria's 'national security strategy and foreign policy'. Leverett lays out four major components that are necessary for Syria to avoid marginalisation:
  1. Maintaining Syria's influence in Lebanon;
  2. Syria's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict;
  3. Maintaing Syria's role in the regional balance;
  4. And maintaing a relationship with the United States.

This essay aims to analyse Syria's current position in relation to these four major components. It is important to realise firstly that Syria's relationship with Lebanon has created a dark cloud that that plagues Syria's overall objectives. When Bashar Al-Assad came to power in July 2000, Syria's role in world affairs was much stronger than it was after February 14, 2005.

Lebanon was an important asset to Syria. When President Hafez Al-Assad sent Syrian troops there in 1976, it was to stop Israel from establishing hegemony over Lebanon. He figured that if he could control Lebanese affairs, it would give him better bargaining power when dealing with the Israelis. Also, Lebanon could no longer be used a base for Syrian opposition. That is why it was essential to hold on to Lebanon from Syria's point of view.

Now that Syrian troops have left Lebanon and a new anti-Syrian Parliament has taken office, what options does President Bashar Al-Assad have in trying to play a role in Lebanese affairs? Well, for starters, he can close the Syrian-Lebanese border to Lebanese trade; that has already happened. Al-Assad asked Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to make sure Lebanon doesn't become an anti-Syrian base and he as agreed to that. Also, Syria can still maintain some influence over Hizbullah. All in all, despite Syria'a withdrawal from Lebanon, it still has the potential to play a role, although smaller, in Beirut's affairs.

With regards to the Arab-Israeli arena, Syria has been weakened after its retreat from Lebanon. Nevertheless, Syria's use of anti-Israeli groups is still a way to get Washington and Tel Aviv's attention. It is still a reminder that Syria has the ability to confront its enemies without having to resort to official military action. With regards to Hizbullah, any influence Syria now wields over it can be better used than when Syria occupied Lebanon. Back then, when Hizbullah carried out an attack, Syria was blamed. Today, it is harder to blame Syria because there is no more official evidence that Syria assists Hizbullah. Al-Assad's use of these groups is simply to get Israel to the negotiating table on terms favourable to Syria. However, with Ariel Sharon in power, it is quite a risk.

Diplomatic marginalisation for Syria is a nightmare. Syria knows that in order play a big role in the regional balance in the Middle East, it had to find a way to get Washington to hear its message. It continues to have two ways of doing so: through Washington's allies and states hostile to it.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, close allies of the USA, help Syria by carrying its message to the Bush Administration. Under international pressure to withdraw his troops from Lebanon, President Al-Assad sought the help of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. When the Prince told Al-Assad that Syrian-Saudi relations could be harmed if Syria refused to withdraw, Al-Assad pushed forward with the withdrawal. During the funeral of King Fahd in August 2005, President Al-Assad could be seen standing a couple meters away from the side of the new King Abdullah, a sign that Syrian-Saudi relations remain close. However, due to Rafik Al-Hariri's closeness to the Saudi royals, relations could be jeopardised between the two countries if the Mehlis report points the finger of blame on Syria.

Following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Syria suspended diplomatic relations with Egypt for ten years from 1979 to 1989. It was a wise decision to resume them in 1989 because during that time, Syria's Gulf allies were angered by Al-Assad's support for Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq. Without the Saudis to get their message across, Syria decided to heal her wounds with Egypt. Following Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, President Al-Assad held discussions with Egyptian President Housni Mubarak in an effort to ease internation pressure on Syria. However, Mubarak is an old man. It is rather to doubtful to even think that his son may succeed him. Whoever does succeed him may not favour such close ties to Syria, especially if that new government despises what it believes to be undemocratic states.

Since supporting Iran against Iraq, both Syria and Iran have had close relations. Leverett argues that one of its aims in allying herself with such problematic states was to convey the message to Washington that there were risks involved if Syria was ignored. Damascus and Tehran's support for Hizbullah is testament to that. It should also be noted that in the aftermath of Al-Hariri's assassination, Syria was under tremendous international pressure. For its part, Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus for consultations the day after. Damascus' response was to send Prime Minister Naji Al-Otri to meet Iranian ministers the day of Al-Hariri's funeral. The end result was a pledge by both states to form a united front to deal with Washington's threats.

Six years prior to the invasion of Iraq, Syria began opening bilateral ties with its former enemies in Baghdad. By 1997, Saddam Hussein, feeling the burden of isolation, decided it was in his best interests to engage Damascus. When Bashar took over, better relations began to develop between the former rivals. In fact, President Al-Assad sent the then-Prime Minister Mustafa Miro to Baghdad to meet President Saddam Hussein. An oil pipeline was opened between Kirkuk and the port of Banyas. This relationship with Baghdad was an even bigger message to Washington and Tel Aviv than its relation with Iran was. However, with Saddam's downfall and a pro-American government in charge, Iraq now has the potential to join Egypt and Saudi Arabia as Syria's messengers to Washington. However, this has been hampered as Iraq accuses Syria of not doing enough to protect its borders against insurgents entering Iraq.

It should also be noted that Turkey remains one of Syria's few allies in the region currently. It is important to bear in mind that the Turkish President ignored American pressure to abandon his official visit to Damascus earlier this year. US-Turkish relations have been at a low ever since Turkey refused to support the USA's Iraq war, and this has turned out to be good news for the Al-Assad regime. Despite the fact that Syria and Turkey were on the brink of war in the late 1990s, it has been the issue of Kurdish separatism that keeps them in a alliance. Since US-Turkish relations began to pick up earlier this year, Syria may now be able to look at Turkey as another of her messengers to Washington.

Currently, Syria's relationship with the USA is at a low. They could even be worse now than they were back in the 1980s when Syria and militias allied to it attacked American positions in Lebanon. Also, Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus back in 1987 as well when Syria was implicated in the Hindawi affair. Syria's relationship with the USA recovered from those events, but it was different back then. It those days, there was no 9-11 that could be used as a means to justify regime change in Damascus due to Washington's designation of Syria as being a state-sponsor of terrorism. Also back then, Washington didn't engage Al-Assad's Syrian opposition parties. However, this could all be ploy to get Syria to change her behaviour. There were rumors that when Secretary Rice visited Emille Lahoud in Beirut, a secret agreement was reached with Damascus. She couldn't make a visit to Damascus for political reasons, but it has been rumored that there was more to her meeting with the pro-Syrian President. As of now, there is a possibility that US-Syrian relations can recover, but only time will tell.

Leverett gives a clear understanding of how Syrian politics works in his book. It becomes easier to understand Syria's actions with regards to her neighbours. Despite the fact that Syria remains a mystery to many, Dennis Ross states that "Leverett's book begins to unravel the mystery". After reading it, one could even start to predict Syria's next moves. It has become clear that what Syria aims to do is not to give in easily to pressure. The Al-Assad regime wants to use every possible moment to avoid changing its behaviour in order to portray the message that Syria doesn't succumb to outsides pressure easily, and that engaging her on a dimplomatic level is the only way to deal with her. That is just one of the conclusions I drew from this book.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Hafez Al-Assad: The Symbol of Arab Resistance

Air Force Commander- 1963-1966
Minister of Defense- 1966-1970
Prime Minister- 1970-1971
President- 1971-2000

Since the day he was born, Hafez Ali Sulaiman Al-Assad was in the unprivileged groups of Syria's minorities. Most of the power rested in the hands of the French and then with the Sunni Urban elite. Sunni religious scholars referred to Alawis as heretics and they persecuted for centuries. This was the situation most Alawis, offshoots of the Shia Islam, found themselves in at the time of Hafez Al-Assad's birth, officially declared to be October 6, 1930; some historical analysts believe he was born earlier. He was brought up in the Allawi mountains overlooking the city of Lattakia, which was located on Syria's Mediterranean coastline.

Back then, education was rare and preicous for an Allawi from a poor background whose family worked the fields. In fact, Al-Assad only managed to get accepted in a Lattakia school because he had the skills so rarely found. He was an intelligent boy who lacked the needs to carry on into higher education. It was with all these factors in mind that Al-Assad sought refuge in the ideological realms of the Arab Socialist Baath Party.

The pan-Arab secular character mixed with socialist principles and freedom appealed to Al-Assad. For starters, since he was a member of the Allawi community, he knew the consequences of a theocratic state. Thus, it was his wish that Syria be governed under secularist principles.

Freedom and pan-Arabism worked well in Al-Assad's mind. At the time of his youth, Syria was under the French mandate, which had carved up the lands of Greater Syria with Britain into the present-day nations of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Occupied Palestine, and Israel. Al-Assad was in favour of uniting these former lands together and furthermore, uniting them with all the Arab nations to form a string union that could counter any threats in the region, such as colonial or Zionist powers. Simultaneously, it would preserve the liberty of the Arab nations.
For any person from an oppressed background, communism or socialism is an answer to dealing with hardships. Communism was a bit too extreme for the Arabs, so socialism was adopted as part of the Baathist platform. All these ideas motivated Al-Assad and he became one of the most powerful leaders in student government. Much of his motivation was accredited to Akram Al-Hawrani, the leader of the Arab Socialist Party, who merged his political faction with Michel Aflaq and Salah Al-Din Bitar's Baath Party.
Syria achieved her independence from French rule on April 17, 1946, when Al-Assad was still in his youth. Not long after, he completed his studies at high school. Unable to fund his univeristy tuition, unlike the urban Sunni elite, Al-Assad and many others from the same poor background opted for the military. This decision would give an advantage when the time came for the Baath's ascendence to power in Syria.
He joined the Air Force and performed well during his aerobatics exam. He was a good flyer, but once narrowly escaped death when he had to make an emergency landing. The skills he had, whether in flying or leading, would serve to distinguish is capabilities from others.
With link between the military and the Baath Party growing, pan-Arab sentiment grew in Syria in the late 1950s. With much support for the idea in both Egypt and Syria, there appeared to be no alternative but unity between the two countries in 1958. By now, the Baath's goals had already begun. President Shukri Al-Quwatli joined Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser in forming the United Arab Republic (UAR).
Fearful of the fact that the Baathists would capitalize on this gain, Abdel-Nasser wanted to see its demise. the party's leaders, Michel Aflaq and Salah Al-Din Bitar complied with Abdel-Nasser's wishes. These two men were deemed traitors Hafez Al-Assad and other members. It was this act that propelled Al-Assad to take matters into his own hands. He joined fellow Alawites Salah Jadid and Muhammad Amran, and two others from the Ismaili sect in forming the Military Committee of the Baath Party. However, their hopes of continued unity were dashed when newly-installed Syrian President Nazim Qudsi, an anti-unionist who took over his new post following a coup, announced Syria's secession from the UAR in 1961.
The Baath Party's military branch reconciled with the civilian branch, under Michel Aflaq and Salah Al-Din Bitar, but the wound caused by Aflaq would not be forgotten by men like Hafez Al-Assad. Hoping to regain power in Syria, they formed an alliance with fellow Nasserists, who were pan-Arabists. The Baathists also one loyal supporters among members of the Syrian military and intelligence services.
Inspired by the success of the Baath Party in Iraq, the Syrian Baathists moved in on the Syrian government. They successfully captured the state on March 8, 1963. It was now up to Air Force Commander Hafez Al-Assad to win the allegiance of the soldiers; he did this by introducing Baathist ideology into the military.
However, not everything went smoothly. The alliance between the Baathists and the Nasserists was showing cracks in the wall. The Nasserists were not happy and the Baathists could not risk anything at that point. A rift came between them and the Baathists ousted the Nasserists from the coalition of forces ruling Syria. This was the first rift within the Party while it was in power.
Interests were clashing within the Baath Party by 1966. President Amin Al-Hafez was heading into the civilian camp, rather than keeping a balance between the military personnel and the civilians. Muhammad Amran was showing his backing for Aflaq and Bitar. Al-Assad and Salah Jadid were anxious at this point, since they knew that either the civilians or the military were going to control Syria's future. They decided to use their forces in taking out the civilians.
This conflict would bring Rifaat Al-Assad, Hafez Al-Assad's youngest brother into the spotlight. Al-Assad and Jadid were preparing to take out President Amin Al-Hafez and Selim Hatoum, a fellow Baathist, was instructed to do so. Rifaat Al-Assad joined him in the attack on the President's home. The plan was a success and Rifaat was brought into the spotlight.
The Military Committe triumphed over the civilians. Aflaq and the civilians, including former President Amin Al-Hafez fled to Iraq. Al-Assad became Minister of Defense, Jadid became Syria's main strongman, and they both chose Nour Al-Din Atassi to front for them as President of Syria.
When Israel attacked the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in June 1967, part of what they captured were the Golan Heights from Syria. The war had come about partly due to a Soviet miscalculation that Israel was building up its forces near the Syrian border, which in turn brought Egypt and Jordan into the equation.
The capture of the Golan Heights was blamed by many on Defense Minister Hafez Al-Assad. This, in turn, created a rift between Jadid and him. It was apparent that Al-Assad was becoming a scapegoat. What happened now was simply the beginning of something big that would culminate in 1970- the ouster of Jadid.
Throughout the 1960s, the Baathists were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. They allowed resistance groups to operate from Syria against the Israelis. Al-Assad saw this as his chance to build Syria into an Arab force that could one day be at the head of the Arab nation. Before that, he figured, he would need to establish Syria's power in the Arab Levant, the former states of Greater Syria. He saw that it would be best to bring the Palestinians under his wing, but Yasser Arafat did not want to have to take orders from anyone, even the leaders of the countries he was operating from. Therefore, in 1966, Al-Assad jailed Arafat.
Following his release, Arafat begun to set up camp in Jordan, where there was a flood of Palestinian refugee camps. King Hussein of Jordan had the same problem; he did not want the Palestinians to feel free to use his country as base for operations against Israel. The Palestinians saw this as an obstacle and decided to take out Hussein. War broke out between the Jordanians and the PLO under Arafat.
Al-Assad did not want to see the Palestinians crumble. He figured he should try to find a way to reconcile the two opposing forces, but time was not on his side. The Palestinians were losing and Al-Assad committed himself to providing help and protection to them. This meant that he would have to send Syrian tanks into Jordan. Thus, a conflict broke out between Syria and Jordan. This, in turn, brought the Jordanians and Israelis into an alliance against Syria. The chances of American intervention also had to be considered.
Al-Assad and Jadid were now facing disagreements. Both were not able to reach an understanding regarding the use of the air force in Jordan. Although Syria eventually withdrew from Jordan, and unintentionally pushed Hussein into a new relationship with Israelis, the Baathist rift grew in Syria.
Finally, on November 16, 1970, Al-Assad and his loyalists, such as Deputy Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and Head of Air Force Intelligence Muhammad Al-Khouli, led the successful Correctionist Movement. Jadid and his loyalists, such as President Nour Al-Din Al-Atassi, were jailed, and Hafez Al-Assad became Syria's strong man.
When Hafez Al-Assad led his coup, he installed Ahmad Khatib as President and took over the port of Prime Minister. It was not until the following year that he was elected Secretary-General of the Baath Party, and a elected President of the Republic through a plebisicite. By March 13, 1973, a new constitution was promulgated that set up various institutions of power.
The Baath Party became the leading party in the state and society. Other left-wing parties were allowed to operate under the command of the Baath Party in the Progressive National Front (PNF). The Syrian Parliament, the People's Assembly, was created and it is a 250-member unicameral legislature, where 65% of the seats are allocated to the PNF. Due the popular demand by conservative Sunnis in northern Syria, who were not happy seeing an Alawite in charge in Damascus, the constitution specified that presidency was reserved for a Muslim. Al-Assad asked his friend Musa Al-Sadr, a major Shiite figure, to declare Alawites Muslims, which he did.
Assad's main aim was restoring Syria's dignity through regaining the Golan Heighst from Israel.
Abdel-Nasser's successor in Egypt, Anwar Al-Sadat, was also suspicious of Syria's Baathists and did not hold them in high regard. He was also trying to push for peace with Israelis in the hope of regaining the Sinai Peninsula, which Egypt lost to Israel in 1967. His main aim in joining Syria in a war against Israel was to push for a better bargaining position in the peace negotiations. Unlike Syria's aims which were to take back its land, Egypt's were simply for peace purposes and praisings from Washington. In fact, Egypt had no plans of taking back the full Sinai.
The war plans were simple. Both agreed to attack Israel simultaneously on both fronts, thereby crippling Israel's chances of fighting a war on two fronts. Syria was meant to send its troops into the whole Golan, while Egypt was meant to do the same with regards to the Sinai. However, Egypt did not have long air defence missiles, so they only planned to take back a small piece of the Sinai, but they lied to Syrians about it.
So when war broke out on Al-Assad 43rd birthday (06/10/73), Syria was in a positive mood and was doing very well with regards to regaining the Golan. However, Sadat sent a message to Secretary Henry Kissinger and told him that after a small advance into the Sinai, Egypt was prepared to stop. Kissinger forwarded this to the Israeli government under Golda Meir. The Israelis, seeing that their western front was now secure, advanced against the Syrians. This spelled disaster for Al-Assad who was angered by Al-Sadat. Syria's chances of regaining the Golan were now lost.
Hoping to sideline Syria's power in the region by getting its main ally Egypt to sign a peace deal with Israel, Kissinger, a pro-Israeli Jew, sought to give the Syrians some carrots to keep the Egyptians happy. After all, Al-Sadat could not forward with his negotiations and look like a massive traitor to the Syrians. Al-Assad was unaware of Kissinger's plans, so he accepted Israel's disengagement from Quneitra Province in the Golan, but he refused to attend a Geneva Conference for peace negotiations, unlike Al-Sadat who jumped at the idea.
By 1975, Lebanon was in a civil war between left-wing Palestinian sympathizers and right-wing Christian nationalists. Al-Assad was worried that should the left-wing Muslims win the war, since they had the capabilities to, a radical pro-Palestinian state would be right on Syria's western border. This radical state could attack Israel and thus, justify an Israeli invasion, which would be a blow to Al-Assad's pan-Arab plan. In other words, Al-Assad needed to make sure the Israelis had no excuse to invade, because he could not risk losing Lebanon to the Zionists. Therefore, Kissinger worked out another plan.
Kissinger figured that if Al-Assad joined the Christians, the Muslims would be defeated and no longer pose a threat to the Israelis. Al-Assad, unaware of this plan, saw it as a way to defeat the radicals, while being able to bring the Christians under his wing and thus, extend his power to Lebanon. Therefore, despite the condemnations and the possibility of deteriorating relationships with his Arab neighbours, Al-Assad joined the Christians after Lebanon's Christian President Suleiman Franjieh asked for Syria's assitance in 1976. This was against the PLO made relations between Al-Assad and Arafat even worse.
The Muslim Brotherhood had opposed Al-Assad's rule since day one. Most of them concentrated their forces in the northern city of Hama. In fact, they first revolved against the Baathists in 1964, but were defeated. They stayed quiet for a bit, but then restarted their campaign against the Baathists in 1976. One of the reasons was because Al-Assad sided with the Christians against the pro-Palestinian forces.
The Muslim Brotherhood began targeting Baathists and Alawites. In 1980, they attempted to assassinate Al-Assad. By 1982, Al-Assad's patience ran out. Syrian soliders were attacked in Hama and Al-Assad now sought to take them out. For three weeks, Syrian forces laid siege to the city of Hama. The number of casualties was high. It was a six-year civil war between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baathist government in which many on both sides were killed.
The Syrian faction of the Muslim Brotherhood divided after Hama. Many were imprisoned and others went off into exile. In 1980, a law was passed which stated that anyone found to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood would face the death penalty. For the time being, the Muslim Brotherhood's activities in Syria were no longer a threat to the government.
Against the wishes of many Arab leaders, including President Hafez Al-Assad, Anwar Al-Sadat went ahead and made peace with Israelis on March 26, 1979. Syria severed all diplomatic relations with Egypt and to make matters worse for Al-Sadat, Egypt was expelled from the Arab League.
Al-Assad knew that he had lost an ally in the war against the Israelis by 1978. He then turned to neighbouring Baathist Iraq, where he hoped to sign a pact. In fact, unity was on the table and Al-Assad was ready to join forces with Iraq's Ahmad Hassan Bakar. However, Bakar's demise was confirmed in 1978 when Iraqi Vice-President Saddam Hussein forced Bakar's retirement and took over. Saddam Hussein believed that unity with Syria would delay his ascent to power and thus, he would have none of it.
Syria now had no real effective ally it could count on. On October 6, 1981, while commemorating the eighth year of the October War, opponents of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty assassinated Anwar Al-Sadat. Vice-President Housni Mubarak succeeded him.
Al-Assad had first joined the Christians in their fight against the pro-Palestinians. However, when he found out what were the Israeli-Christian plans, he turned against his allies. He turned his attention to the Druzes and other left-wing groups opposed to Christian domination of Lebanon. Now Syrian forces were fighting against the Christians, under Bashir Gemayel, who were allied with Israel.
When the Israeli ambassador was almost assassinated in June 1982 by a member of Abu Nidal's Anti-Arafat Palestinian group, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon did not seem to care that it was not Arafat who carried out the attempt. They used it as an excuse to invade Lebanon in 1982, and ally themselves with the Christians against the Palestinians, many of whom were allied with Syria. Constant bombardment of Beirut infuriated the citizens living there. Sharon;s tactic was to smoke out the Palestinians and it worked. Fed up with the destruction of their capital, the Lebanese called on the Palestinians to leave, which they did. Israel was now moving in on securing Lebanon as a satellite state.
Al-Assad now was afraid that Syria was getting sidelined in the region. Another victory for the Israelis was the election of Bashir Gemayel as the new Lebanese President. However, that victory was short-lived when Gemayel was assassinated in September 1982. A member of the Syrian National Party was accused of the murder. In his stead, his older brother, the more moderate Amin Gemayel became President of Lebanon.
Nevertheless, Israel was prepared to get a peace deal signed with Amin Gemayel's government. The Americans sponsored the peace initiative. Syria, anxious about this peace treaty, began aiding militias opposed to it, such as Druzes, to fight the Christians. Israelis and Americans were caught in the middle. The Americans, angered by Syria's methods, began shelling its forces in the Bekaa Valley. The Syrians shot down two American warplanes.
When the American barracks in Beirut were attacked, the finger of blame lay on Hizbullah, and it was believed that Iran and Syria were behind it. However, the Israelis and the Americans, seeing that their casualties were growing, had no other choice, but to begin withdrawing from Lebanon.
Syria was now becoming the dominant force in Lebanon. Amin Gemayel had no other option but to submit to the Syrians. The peace deal with Israel was cancelled before it could take effect. This was now the beginning of Syria's tutelage over Lebanon.
Al-Assad did not trust Saddam Hussein from the moment the latter ascended to power. They were both Baathist rivals, each accusing the other of misrepresenting the Arab cause. Attacks on each other became the norm. It was for these reasons that Syria hoped to contain Iraq by joing Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein. For eight years, Syria sided with Iran against Arab wishes. If Saddam Hussein was able to defeat Iran, it would give more legitimacy to his Baath Party. That is why it became a precedent for both Syria and Iraq to aid each other's enemies.
Seeing that Al-Assad was gaining ground in Lebanon, there were some Lebanese Christians who opposed him. Among them were Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces and provisional Prime Minister Michel Aoun. Both attempted to fight the Al-Taif Accords, which pretty much designated Syria as Lebanon's parent country. However, they both caught up in a fight against themselves, with Aoun trying to curb the power of the militias. Syria was able to exploit the situation to its advantage.
It was Saddam Hussein, ironically, that helped Al-Assad secure Lebanon. When he invaded Kuwait, George Bush Sr. needed Syrian support to oust him from the oil-rich emirate. The price of Kuwait ended up being Lebanon. Aoun had been receiving supplies from Iraq and had been criticizing the Americans as well. Thus, there was little use to help him. Instead, Bush gave Al-Assad the green light to take him out. Geagea had also been cornered and sent to prison in 1994 on charges of murdering Dany Chamoun, Prime Minister Rashid Karameh, and other crimes it was believed. Lebanon now came under the Syria's wings, but the southern part was occupied by the Israelis who remained resisted by Hizbullah.
For President Al-Assad, the price of Lebanon was helping the Americans liberate Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was a pest for Al-Assad, sidelining him would be a great accomplishment for the Syrian leader. Thus, he joined the US-led coalition against Iraq. The end result was a great achievement for Syria.
The Syrians had long been allied with the Soviets. However, their relationship was not always the best since Al-Assad resisted Soviet's wish to have some say over Syrian policy. When he joined the Christians, the Soviets were unhappy. However the Syrian-Soviet relationship was a friendly one in which the Soviets gave Al-Assad a plethora of military supplies. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was a wise choice for Al-Assad to side with the Americans against Iraq. Billions of dollars flowed into the economy, especially from thankful Gulf states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Another reward for helping the Americans was the Madrid Peace Conference. Al-Assad hoped that Syria could join forces with the other Arab states in conflict with Israel and present a united front. However, Jordan and the PLO went a separate way, with Palestinians negotiating the Oslo Accords. Syria was unimpressed, especially when the Israelis declared that they were not ready to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights.
Israeli-Syrian peace talks failed on a number of occasions besides the Madrid Conference. They fell apart with Yitzhkak Rabin, and it was too late to restart them when Rabin was assassinated in 1995. They also fell apart with Ehud Barak in March 2000.
Syria resented Jordan for signing a peace deal with the Israelis in 1994 and destroying any united front. Al-Assad had been trying different means to get King Hussein to stop negotiating separately, but Hussein decided it was a right time when Arafat signed the Oslo Accords with Rabin on September 13, 1993. Syria and Lebanon were now the last bastion of Arab resistance.
President Hafez Al-Assad suffered a major setback in 1994 with regards to the succession. It had widely been believed in the 1980s that Rifaat Al-Assad would emerge as President Assad's successor, but Rifaat's behaviour during Hafez's recovery after his heart attack hurt the President. Rifaat saw a chance to bid for power, but President Al-Assad realized that Rifaat's wings may have to be clipped. From 1983-4, both were in conflict, and finally, when Rifaat was preparing a coup, as many believed, President Al-Assad sought the chance to sideline Rifaat. He was appointed as an honourary Vice-President and lives in exile.
After the Rifaat episode, Hafez Al-Assad looked to his eldest son Bassel as a possible successor. Bassel Al-Assad was a characted of athletic ability and was also seen as a military man. He was an equestrian and a champion in this sport. It was believed that he may wed the daughter of King Hussein at one point, which could have improved Syrian-Jordanian relations in the long-term. He was becoming a major figure in Syrian politics by the 1990s and his picture appeared on the presidential ballot during Hafez Al-Assad's plebiscite in 1992. The picture symbolized Bassel's succession. With preparations going well, tragedy struck the Al-Assad family on January 21, 1994. While on his way to Damascus International Airport, Bassel Al-Assad was killed in an automobile accident.
Bassel's death was a major tragedy for President Al-Assad and a major setback for those who favoured the continuation of the Al-Assad regime. Therefore, President Al-Assad's second eldest son, Bashar Al-Assad, was called back from his studies in the United Kingdom to fill Bassel's shoes. Bashar had been studying to be an ophthalmologist, not a politican. His pursuit of medicine echoed his father's wish to study the same subject. Nevertheless, like father, like son, Bashar had to give it up for the presidency of Syria. He would now start a six-year grooming period.
One fact both the Turks and Syrians fear is Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Syria sought to contain it by supporting Kurdish groups, and by even allowing Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader, to seek refuge in Syria. This was a problem for the Turks who regarded Ocalan as a terrorist. They sought his extradition, but Syria refused. This made the Turks very angry.
It was this anger that probably led them to blocking water on Euphrates river from reaching Syria. This created an even tenser atmosphere between the two. The Israeli-Turkish alliance signed earlier only made relations worse. Bomb attacks in Syria by the Turks was used to show Syria just how committed it was to getting Syria to stop supporting the Kurds. Both countries were now on the brink of war.
It was the election of a new government in Turkey that helped avoid a military conflict. Al-Assad and the Turks struck a deal in the late 1990s. Ocalan was told to leave Syria and Al-Assad no longer supported the Kurdish groups. Although realtions between the Syrians and the Kurds deteroriated, it saved Syria from another war.
In fact, it is the Kurdish issue that has now brought both Syria and Turkey so much closer together. Today, Turkey may be regarded as Syria's closest ally in the region.
President Hafez Al-Assad's death was announced on June 10, 2000. Dr. Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father as President on July 17, 2000 and has set Syria on a path towards reform. However, reform does not necessarily mean that there was something wrong with the system. In fact, it means that Syria is accommodating the winds of change. Hafez Al-Assad was known for this. Whenever a major event like the fall of the Soviet Union happened, he knew how to respond to it. He had based his system on the Easten European ones, so when they fell, he merely changed a few things around. Law No. 10 of 1991 is testament to that since it encouraged foreign investment.
Al-Assad's main goal was Syria at the head of an Arab union. He tried getting this done with regards to the Levant, and Lebanon turned out to be a success story until 2005. Syria, today, is the last bastion of Arab resistance against Israel. Al-Assad made that happen because he did not sell out like Al-Sadat, Arafat, and Hussein did. He will go down in history as true Arab leader who resisted destroying Syrian dignity, like many in the region did. Many regard him as the most respectable Arab leader. Now it is one President Bashar Al-Assad's shoulders to keep that image alive.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Why Bashar is the Right Man for the Job!

I was just sitting there searching for information on the Syrian President, Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, when I realized just how sad people can be. First of all, they compare this guy to Saddam Hussein and they assume that total power is vested in this one man. What I realized next was just how privileged I am to be smart comapred to most people who write simple garbage on the Internet. For those of you who write this trash online and for those of you who believe it, I think you might find this article quite helpful.
Let me give you a brief biography on the Syrian President. First of all, he is the second eldest son of the late president, Hafez Al-Assad. Although he spent a good amount of time serving in the Syrian military, his main passion was with ophthalmology- specializing in the study of the eyes, which he was pursuing while he was in the United Kingdom. Basically, he wanted to become an eye doctor, not a head of state. That all changed on January 21, 1994, when his older brother, Bassel, was killed in an automobile accident. His father saw to it that Bashar's future lay in Syria's presidency. Although he was reluctant at first to except the job, he eventually sided with his father's wishes and prepared to be groomed. He inherited Syria's presidency on July 17, 2000, just 37 days after the death of his father. He is married to Asma Al-Akhras, a Syrian businesswoman who was born and lived in Britain; she was on her way to study for an MBA at Harvard Univeristy before marrying the Syrian President. They have two sons and a daughter.
I have told you quite a bit about Bashar Al-Assad and now its time to analyse just why he is the right man for the job. Let's first start with his military career. Bashar did train in the military, but not to the extent that his older brother was involved in. Today, he holds a plethora of military titles, but they are solely symbolic since they are required for a head of state. Thus, we can now see that his main ambition was never to become a president, since military expertise is required as I have already explained. You may be thinking to yourselves that the only reason he did not pursue a military career was because he never expected to become president, but that's untrue since his younger brother Maher became deeply involved in the military.
Secondly, he studied opthalmology in the United Kingdom. While he were in London, he witnessed exactly what the West could achieve. This became the basis for his plans to reform Syria politically, economically, and socially. Some are arguing that after five years, he should have achieved much more than is at present. My advise is go to Syria, since you've probably haven't and see to yourself what has changed- the Internet has come to Syria, women have been encouraged to enter into the field of business (partly thanks to Mrs. Al-Assad), people have begun to speak up on the lows and highs of the government. This was never the case five years ago. Also, bear in mind that Bashar needs to balance out his agenda with that of the old guard, the establishment that the President inherited from his father.
Unlike most world leaders, Bashar is a family man in the eyes of the public. His three children are all still infants and his wife is very popular in the eyes of the people. Ask people what they like most about the President, and tehre's a good chance they will say his family. His wife, who could be considered British until she moved to Damascus, is very educated and understands the needs of country like Syria. There are occasions when Bashar and his wife engage with the people and ask them what they hope to see. There was even talk that before he became president, he would give people his number to contact him regarding any problems they had (although this is still not verified).
You may think to yourself that the people have to show him affection because if they don't bad things will happen to them- this utter nonsense. Take for example, President Assad's visit to the UK in December 2002. As he and his wife arrived at the Dorchester Hotel, hundreds of Syrian expatriots were chanting their admiration for him- yes in Britain, a country where they don't have to do that. Syrians genuinely like Bashar. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, who fought against his father, have come to realize that he is the right man for the job at this point, especially since he released many of their colleagues from prison.
There are many people out there who underestimate him. These comparisons to Saddam Hussein are clearly garbage. Saddam would not have let his prisoners out of jails; he most likely would have executed them. If George W. Bush continues with this pressure, it may help Bashar sideline the old guard as he pushes for his reforms. If Bush wants to do something else, my advice is just to remember the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The major miscalculation was the support Castro had from his people. If the US wants to execute the same scenario, Syria will only go back in time. Right now, the right man for the job is Bashar!

The Problem with British Parliamentary Democracy!

How many of you know that during the recent British elections on May 5th, the people of Sedgfield had the power to unseat Tony Blair as prime minster if they wished? You see the thing with the British government is that it functions as a parliamentary democracy, where sole authority comes from Westminster. Sedgefield is one little constituency out of more that 650. To show the problem with this, allow me to explain to you the process of how the British government is formed.

Whenever there is an election every five years (but it can be called before if the Prime Minister wishes), the 650+ seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs. On election day, the British public vote for any of the candidates who want to represent their constituency. For example, if I were a resident of Blackburn, I would vote for one of the candidates (who could be a member of any political party) running to represent Blackburn as a constituency in the House of Commons. Thus, I don't vote directly from the Prime Minister.

Once the election is over, the political party who obtains the most seats in the Commons gets to form the next government. There are instances when no party obtains a majority and thus, a 'hung parliament' is declared. In that case a coalition government will have to be formed (most likely, the Liberal Democrat Party will work with the Labour Party and keep the Conservatives out of the government). The leader of the party with the majority of the seats, so along as he or she has won a seat, gets to become the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will then appoint other MPs to take up portfolios in the cabinet.

So you see, all these people in Tony Blair's cabinet, including the Prime Minister himself, have to win seats. Had Tony Blair lost in Sedgfield, he could not have returned as Prime Minister. Similarly, if Jack Straw had lost in Blackburn, he could not have returned as Foreign Secretary. So I think its a bit funny how one small group of people, as oppose to the entire country, has the power remove a major figure from office.

Another problem I see deals with accountability. Let's say for example that your MP is from the Labour Party and you support him because he has done good things for you. Now let's say you very angry with whole fiasco of the Iraq War and you want to see the back of Tony Blair. However, you know that if you want Tony Blair out, you're going to need to vote against the MP whom you support; this is obviously a very big problem for you. You are, in reality, voting against your conscience.
One last major problem is the House of Lords- members of the British nobility who are simply appointed by the Prime Minister, not elected, and who are entrusted with power to vote on certain bills that relate to the lives of ordinary people. Now I know that in order for a bill to become an act (as long as it does not relate to money), it must be approved by both Houses. Hence, I realize that the House of Lords will not support a bill that will terminate their status. Here's my proposal (make sure no peer reads this article before my proposal succeeds). Get an MP to propose a bill that allows the government to call for a national referundum on certain issues (this may already exist, but I can't bee too sure). The House of Lords will have to support it since they can't be seen to look down upon the people's right to rule. After it receives royal assent from the Queen, call for a referundum to dismantle the House of Lords. Now, the government may receive lots of money from these guyz, but never fear, you can always use Iraqi oil as a surrogate.
Now, I have listed all the problems with British parliamentary democracy. Here's the solution: once the House of Lords is scrapped, replace with the House of Representatives, which will be based proportional representation. Proportional representation is where the people simply vote for a political party on a national basis, as oppose to a constituent basis. After you have decided how many seats fit into this new House, allow a proportionate number to be given to each party based on how many votes they obtained. For example, if Labour win 30% of the national vote, give them 30% of the seats. Let this be your bicameral legislature, where the people have a much greater say.
Finally, allow the Prime Minister to be elected by the people. He will then appoint a cabinet whose members won't have any seats in Parliament. This will also help with expertise in all the fields. For example, when it come to appointing a Secretary of Defence, you can pick a general, as oppose to picking a person like John Reid, who was a health secretary and probably does not know so much about protecting the state from foreign invasion.
I hope you will take my recommendations seriously, since they provide the key to true democracy, unlike in the United States, where the forefathers were afraid of people making decisions. As for the Royal Family, keep them where they are since they are great for the tourism industry.