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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Mehlis commission: the investigation was not hurt

Following the false impressions that the Husam news conference and his televised testimony left regarding the progress and credibility of the Hariri investigation, the UN inquiry held a briefing Wednesday for a select group of journalists that seems to confirm what I stated in a previous post about the investigation not being dependent on the testimonies of one or two witnesses.

The briefing Wednesday left the journalists with the clear impression that the Houssam news conference, and the recent press stories that seem to discredit another important witness, the Syrian national Mohammad Zuheir al-Siddiq, have not hurt the investigation. This is mainly because the work to date has relied on a wide range of leads and information gleaned from material evidence and human testimony, and does not rest on the testimony of one or two main witnesses.

The experienced investigators on the case from a dozen countries, who have dealt with such issues in previous probes, tend to place more credence in signed statements which carry legal ramifications for perjury than in televised news conferences. They do not necessarily plan to re-evaluate Houssam's testimony as of now in view of his televised news conference, but they routinely question witnesses again to seek clarifications on their statements in the light of new information that regularly flows from the investigation.

They indicate that while they always have doubts about any statements by witnesses, they have no basis to believe that what Houssam said in Syria is true, and rather have the impression that his public statement was fabricated, for reasons they would not speculate on. The Mehlis team has no indication, and does not believe that Houssam was planted or acted as a double agent. They also seem perplexed that the Syrian commission has not questioned him yet.

The ultimate veracity of Siddiq's and Houssam's various sworn and public statements will be determined by a judge or judges in a court of law when the investigation is completed and the trials of the accused are held. The UN investigators also indicate they have no information that Siddiq has withdrawn any of his sworn statements or information.
The briefing also validates another one of my conclusions, which is that "in view of the stark
contradictions between houssam's news conference and his sworn and signed statement under oath to the UN investigators, is that the testimony he gave to the UN team is the more reliable and accurate of the two."

On what this says about the method by which Syria says it is cooperating:
The impression one gets from discussions here and with UN officials in New York is that the Syrian government is pursuing a two-track strategy of making statements and accusations in public that aim to discredit the Mehlis effort, while being somewhat more cooperative in private interactions with the probe. This was also the tone of Syrian President Bashar Assad's speech at Damascus University last month, when he strongly attacked the UN investigation, the U.S., Lebanon and others, but also said that Syria would cooperate with the investigation as required by the UN Security Council.
Read it in full here.

Meanwhile, here's Michael Young on why Mehlis should be given six more months:

Six more months would make Russia and China more amenable to sanctions in the event Syria repeatedly fails to meet or contests Mehlis' conditions. This might also isolate Assad further in the Arab world, where it is already difficult enough to cover for the Syrian president's transparent bad faith in cooperating with the UN. At the end of the day, grotesque episodes like the Houssam news conference show the Syrians have much to hide. It may be comical, but the last laugh will probably be on them.

Finally, with everybody spelling Husam "Houssam", I suppose it's my turn to bow to the majority and use that spelling from now on.

The Husam miniseries, part deux: Tharwat calls back

In his second press conference this week, Husam, the masked witness who recanted, said through his lawyer today that his Lebanon-based fiancée, Tharwat al-Hujeiri, and her family, are being pressured to discredit him in the media. He said that the same Lebanese parties that threatened and pressured him are pressuring his fiancée (whose name means fortune in Arabic) and her family through the "temptation of money and gifts."

To elucidate matters, my evil anti-Syrian head decided to dramatize a phone conversation that allegedly took place between Husam and Tharwat, whose engagement, Elaph claims, was facilitated by Rustom Ghazali, the former Syrian ruler of Lebanon. The phone conversation, a distraught Husam said today, prompted this press conference.

Tharwat calls back

Tharwat: Aloh? Husam? Shlonak Habibi?

Husam: Who are you?

Tharwat: I am Tharwat, the love of your life, apple of your eyes. Remember me? Rustom brought us together. Have you seen him? Is he going to Vienna with you?

Husam: Hmmmm. Why do you ask? Who have you been talking to?

Tharwat: Husam habibi, come back to me. Where is that picture you promised me with Saad?

Husam: Are you alone? Who gave you this number?

Tharwat: Husam—why did you change your mind habibi? What happened to our planned trip to Paris? You said we were going ten days ago but you went to your village instead. And now you are in Damascus!

Husam: I am going to hang up now.

Tharwat: Hushus! Are you leaving me for Rustom? OK.. never mind… I don't want to go to Paris anymore, Saad doesn't care about us! I told you that but didn't believe me!

Husam: Did somebody put you up to this?

Tharwat: Hashusak shoo sexy you looked! Was that the Armani suit that Rustom "bought" you from Aishti last year? I miss you Hushus. I miss our trips along the St George, even though you stopped taking me there after Rustom blew up Abu Evil Hariri. Aloooooooo? You still there?

Husam: Are they pressuring you? Are they giving you cars and jewelry and tempting you with money?

Tharwat: What are you talking about, Hushus. No more jewelry since Rustom left. Sigh. Those were the days. How I miss our chats and the special injections you said made me look like those girls in Maameltein. By the way, I ran out. Where can I find more? And can I have that car you talked about on television?

Husam: I will do something about this. Don't say anything to anyone.

Tharwat: Don't say what?

Husam: Rustom and Assef warned me that they will get to you. Did you see my press conference today? I pre-empted it!

Tharwat: You had another one today? Where?

Husam: At the Meridien Hotel.

Tharwat: Isn't that where you told me Assafsaf and Rustom planned the explosion? You said you would take me there and show me…

Husam hangs up.

Meanwhile, a source at the Syrian foreign ministry said this today: (AFP)
Syria is continuing a complete cooperation with the commission of inquiry but wishes that this is done far from the eyes of the media.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Syrian witness stunt part of smear campaign

In another effort to discredit the investigation, the Syrian regime, still stuck at Mehlis’ interim report, has been waging a crusade to undermine the witnesses mentioned in the report. Unfortunately for the regime, the investigation has moved beyond the interim report and this latest stunt will not derail it. The suspects are on the way to Vienna and we still have a long way to go.

Having said that, here’s another examination of Husam Husam’s contribution to the campaign to discredit the UN investigation and all Lebanese opposed to Syria.

Marketing the retraction

For someone so patriotic and concerned about his country, Husam, who says he works for Syrian intelligence, had plenty of opportunities to flee or publicly expose the Hariri family for their alleged forgeries. But he didn’t. He didn’t because he didn’t want to. Real patriotic agents do not talk like Husam did. They serve their country and sacrifice their lives for it. They do not crack after a few injections and minor threats (Do you call that torture?). He would have been more useful to Syria if he had actually gained the confidence of those he claims pressured him: the Hariris and their supporters. A true Syrian hero would have served Syria differently if he truly had that kind of access.

He recanted after he discovered he is better off running back to his original masters than milking a dead cow. Husam was broke. Like many Syrian agents in Lebanon, he got used to an opulent lifestyle (in the press conference, he was by far the best dressed person in the room). When the Mehlis report came out, he realized his mistake. He was destined for poverty. Like the agents before him, he thought he could go to Hariri and get some money. But Rafik is no longer giving out payments. And Saad is not his father. Husam naturally tried al-Mustaqbal, but they were under strict orders not to interfere. The Hariri family stood to lose big time if word got out they manipulated witnesses. His identity was probably leaked to the Syrians, who are out to discredit Mehlis’ witnesses.

His about-face was late but suited the Syrian regime, which still had to figure out how to present his retraction without stupidly re-incriminating itself. What they did made the witness sound credible to them and their sympathizers, but many Lebanese who are used to the regime’s ways saw right through this laughable attempt.

In order to make his story seem believable, Lebanon was painted to look like its oppressed neighbor: A family is controlling its affairs, and journalists act as advisors to the rulers and government propagandists. For Husam’s story to work and sound credible, Fares Khashan had to be elevated to the status of premier advisor to the son who betrayed his father, assisted by a group of foreign intelligence figures and local ministers who take orders from a corrupt Godfather-like Saad Hariri. There is nothing new here that the Syrian newspapers haven’t already claimed about Hariri and his media. I wonder if Husam had managed to feed them those incredibly similar details about how Saad killed his father while in alleged captivity, in between interviews and forced testimonies!

People who view things through the Syrian prism will find Husam’s accusations credible. Unfortunately for them, Lebanon does not work that way, and if the Hariri family was that powerful, the country would not be where it is now. The new Lebanese government does not operate in the same way the pro-Syrian one did. They are not perfect, but making Saad appear like a Ghazali-type figure only serves to make Husam’s retraction credible in the eyes of those willing to believe in anti-Syrian conspiracies. And you can say whatever you want about the international investigation, but you cannot accuse it of not being professional. Everybody, including the Syrians and the Lebanese who were questioned by it, testified to its professionalism. The claim that Khashan was in the room controlling the recording device is an outright lie. Do you really think the United Nations will copy the Syrian intelligence interrogation methods? This is what Husam and Assef Shawkat want us to believe. We won’t.

The testimony

I think it's important to examine the importance of this testimony to the investigation and whether recanting it will damage its progress. The following is from the Mehlis report.
One witness of Syrian origin but resident in Lebanon, who claims to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon, has stated that approximately two weeks after the adoption of Security Council resolution 1559, senior Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate Rafik Hariri. He claimed that a senior Lebanese security official went several times to Syria to plan the crime, meeting once at the Meridian Hotel in Damascus and several times at the Presidential Place and the office of a senior Syrian security official. The last meeting was held in the house of the same senior Syrian security official approximately seven to 10 days before the assassination and included another senior Lebanese security official. The witness had close contact with high ranked Syrian officers posted in Lebanon.
How did Mehlis use the above information? Here’s the conclusion to this part of the report, which is based on the above plus numerous other elements from other testimonies and phone records.
There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security official and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services.
Mehlis did not say “the decision was taken at the Meridien Hotel in Damascus.” He said the decision to kill Hariri needed the approval of Syria. Nothing here suggests that if you deleted that part of the testimony, you could not conclude the same based on other findings in the report.
At the beginning of January 2005, one of the high ranked officers told the witness that Rafik Hariri was a big problem to Syria. Approximately a month later the officer told the witness that there soon would be an “earthquake” that would re-write the history of Lebanon.
Nothing exclusive here either. It was practically common knowledge that the Syrians viewed Hariri as a big problem.

The witness visited several Syrian military bases in Lebanon. At one such base, in Hammana, he observed a white Mitsubishi van, with a white tarpaulin over the flatbed. The observations were made on 11, 12 and 13 February 2005. The Mitsubishi left the Military base in Hammana on the morning of 14 February 2005. The Mitsubishi Canter van, which was used as the bomb carrier, entered Lebanon from Syria through the Bekaa border and a military hot lane on 21 January 2005, at 1320 hrs. It was driven by a Syrian Colonel from the Army Tenth Division.
The details about the van used in the explosion seem logical, considering it was stolen in Japan and had no other way of entering Lebanon unrecorded except through a military hot lane or one of the smuggling routes on the Syrian border. All points to Syria anyway.

On 13 February 2005, the witness drove one of the Syrian officers to the St. George area in Beirut on a reconnaissance exercise, as he subsequently understood it to have been after the assassination took place.

Regarding Mr. Abu Adass, the witness has stated that he played no role in the crime except as a decoy. He was detained in Syria and forced at gunpoint to record the video tape. Subsequently, he was killed in Syria. The videotape was sent to Beirut on the morning of 14 February 2005, and handed over to Jamil Al Sayyed. A civilian with a criminal record and an officer from the Sûreté Générale were tasked with putting the tape somewhere in Hamra and then calling Ghassan Ben Jeddo, an Al-Jazeera TV reporter.

General Jamil Al-Sayyed, according to the witness, cooperated closely with General Mustapha Hamdan and General Raymond Azar in the preparation of the assassination of Mr. Hariri. He also coordinated with General Ghazali (and, among others, people from Mr. Ahmad Jibreel in Lebanon). General Hamdan and General Azar provided logistical support, providing money, telephones, cars, walkie-talkies, pagers, weapons, ID-cards etc. Those who knew of the crime in advance were among others, Nasser Kandil and General Ali Al-Hajj.
Considering Sayyed had to be reminded by al-Jazeera to send someone to pick up the tape a day after the explosion, I find this information believable. The telephone records and the later attempt by the pro-Syrian Lebanese officials to tamper with evidence lead us to believe that the above is passable information. The Abu Adass stuff is not incredible to believe either. The report established elsewhere and independently of Husam’s testimony that “much of the information surrounding Mr. Abu Adass and his disappearance points to Syria."

Again, Mehlis did not exclusively rely on the above information to reach his conclusion. He did not confuse Husam with God. The testimony does not sound unbelievable though the details would need to corroborated.

For that, the UN team has always maintained that it needs Syrian cooperation to clarify the exact role of the Syrian officials. Let’s review this very important paragraph from the report:
It is the Commission’s conclusion that, after having interviewed witnesses and suspects in the Syrian Arab Republic and establishing that many leads point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved with the assassination, it is incumbent upon Syria to clarify a considerable part of the unresolved questions. While the Syrian authorities, after initial hesitation, have cooperated to a limited degree with the Commission, several interviewees tried to mislead the investigation by giving false or inaccurate statements. The letter addressed to the Commission by the Foreign Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic proved to contain false information. The full picture of the assassination can only be reached through an extensive and credible investigation that would be conducted in an open and transparent manner to the full satisfaction of international scrutiny.
Who is providing false information here? Who is trying to mislead the investigation? The ball has been in Syria’s court to prove its innocence and clarify the nature of its involvement for a long time now. Instead of presenting that evidence, they set up a committee to investigate not the murder, but the work of an international commission with a mandate from the UNSC. That they chose to do that and resort to a silly and unbelievable retraction makes them look more guilty.

In short, what the Syrian regime did was discredit a witness, but ironically not his original story, and certainly not the investigation. This whole episode is nothing but another chapter in the smear campaign against Lebanon. Mehlis has his leads and he is following them. Don’t expect this stunt to derail the investigation. Mehlis is not a rookie, and he does not work by Syrian intelligence rules.

Update: See Khashan's response in al-Mustaqbal (Arabic). Fares said he met Husam two months ago after the latter left a message with the Future TV operator requesting a meeting with the reporter regarding an "important matter that has to do with the masked witness." Husam asked for two things: a television interview and a meeting with Saad Hariri. His reason for the first was to have something on tape in case he is harmed by the Syrian intelligence. Future TV turned him down. The second request he made during the "few visits" he made to Khashan's office. “I used to laugh at the request and he would respond saying he didn’t want any money and that he only wanted a picture with Saad to show his fiancée.” Khashan said he first heard the name of the Syrian officers from Husam, adding that he “will not repeat what he told me about them to spare him their wrath”. Khashan said he will provide the UN team, the Lebanese authorities and the Syrian commission with all the documented evidence he has regarding this matter.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Syrian witness reveals shocking truth

In what will soon become the farce of the century, the Syrian military intelligence showed its idiotic face Sunday by airing more than an hour-long "confession" by somebody claiming to be Mehlis’s masked witness. Husam Taher Husam, a Syrian Kurd, recanted his alleged testimony and claimed he was coached and/or bullied by more than a dozen people including:

Saad Hariri with two English speaking "friends", Marwan Hamade, Walid Jumblatt, An-Nahar’s Gibran Tueni, al-Moustaqbal’s Fares Khashan, LBC's May Chidiac, the French ambassador, Hassan Sabaa (Lebanon’s interior minister), Ghattas Khoury, and of course the UN commission headed by Detlev Mehlis whose car apparently is no match to Husam’s donkey in his village (the commission allegedly gave him a car that he left at the border while escaping. Of course, he also says he tried to escape prison three times. Have you ever hard of a prisoner who is given a car to roam freely OUTSIDE the prison?).

Saad Hariri and Fares Khashan allegedly coached him, with the former offering him through his advisors more than $1.3 million “that were placed on Sabaa’s table.” Husam offered his apologies to the Lebanese security officials for testifying against them, claiming he made the confession under torture (they injected him with needles, which never stopped him from arguing back at his captors and then roaming Lebanon freely in his car.. but wait, he was in prison!) The killers of Hariri, he said, are his inheritors.

And then he reveals the earth-shattering truth: it’s all a Lebanese-French-American conspiracy against “Syria, Iran and Hizbullah.”

The televised confession tried to cater to an increasingly weary Syrian population by including statements like the following: "they were under the impression that the kurds were against Syria but they didn't know that we are Syrians."

Interestingly, all this allegedly happened without Mehlis's knowledge. "I felt he had no relation to anything or knew anything," Husam said. I guess Assef and Maher don't want to get on Mehlis's bad side yet, so they picked easier targets: the Lebanese, US and France!

I will spare you the rest of this nonsense. Read more here, here and here.

As I said in my previous post, the Syrian regime is in its last throes. The only way from here is down.

Update: Read the full transcript here. (Arabic)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The five Syrians and the myth of guarantees

Much has been said about a so called agreement between Mehlis and the Syrian regime on the fate of the five Syrian suspects, with many claiming that Russia stepped in and offered “guarantees” that the five would return to Syria.

Mouallem on Friday (25 November) said that the UN gave Syria "guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals" to be questioned and "reassurances" that its sovereignty would be respected. He added that they will travel to Vienna with their lawyers and “they will return to Syria,” as part of the guarantees that Syria received from a Security Council member state.

Lebanon’s As-Safir on Saturday made the anticipated return part of its first page headline:

ضمان لدمشق بعودتهم إليها وواشنطن وأنان يرحبان والأسد يتلقى اتصالاً من بوتين تسوية مع ميليس: استجواب 5 مسؤولين سوريين في فيينا

In English:

Damascus receives guarantee for their return…. A compromise with Mehlis: 5 Syrian officials to be interrogated in Vienna
Here is an excerpt from the article in Arabic:

وأوضح المعلم أن هذه الموافقة جاءت <<في ضوء التطمينات التي تم نقلها إلى سوريا والتي جاءت متفقة مع ما سعت إليه سوريا من ضمانات تحترم السيادة الوطنية وحقوق الأفراد وبعدما درست القيادة نتائج اجتماع المستشار القانوني لوزارة الخارجية مع السيد ميليس في برشلونة في 18 الحالي واطلعت على النقاط التي تم الاتفاق عليها بينه وبين السيد ميليس وخاصة في ما يتعلق بضمانات حقوق الأفراد>>. وأضاف <<بعد حصولنا على التطمينات اللازمة التي تتفق مع ما طالبت به سوريا لم يعد هناك سوى أن نتعاون>>. وأشار المعلم إلى أن محامياً سيذهب مع كل شخص من الأشخاص الخمسة إلى فيينا وأنهم سيعودون إلى دمشق بعد الانتهاء من المقابلات كجزء من الضمانات التي حصلت عليها سوريا من ميليس نفسه ومن <<مصدر دولي هام>> عضو في مجلس الأمن الدولي. لكنه رفض الإجابة عن سؤال حول موقف سوريا في حالة إصدار مذكرات توقيف بحقهم. وقال إن <<الإجابة الافتراضية عن سؤال افتراضي ستكون خطأ>>.

In addition to what was mentioned above regarding their promised return, Mouallem here is asked about Syria’s position if arrest warrants were issued against the suspects. Syria's deputy foreign minister refuses to answer, arguing that a “hypothetical question” will lead to a wrong “hypothetical answer”. He also rules out an arrest on grounds that Mehlis has no authority to order anybody’s arrest.

Now, can a UNSC member state (identified as Russia) really promise the return of five murder suspects? Let me ask this differently, do such guarantees exist? Look at this Cham Press article:

لكن مصدرا مطلعا في الأمم المتحدة قال إن ميليس رفض التوقيع على بروتوكول التعاون المقترح مع اللجنة القضائية السورية، مضيفا أن الضمانات التي يتحدث السوريون عنها «لا معنى» لها، لأنه ليس من صلاحيات ميليس اصدار مذكرات توقيف بالمشتبه فيهم، في جريمة اغتيال الحريري. وقال المصدر: «بما أن ميليس أو لجنة التحقيق لا يتمتعان بصلاحية اعتقال أي شخص، فلا حاجة لإعطاء أي ضمانات» للسلطات السورية في هذا الاطار. ولفت المسؤول في الأمم المتحدة، الذي اشترط عدم ذكر اسمه، الى أن «المسألة المهمة في هذا الموضوع، هو أن السوريين تلقوا ضمانات من عضو بارز في مجلس الأمن»، يُعتقد أنها روسيا، وأن «الضمانات التي تلقاها السوريون، هي نفس الضمانات التي قدمها هذا العضو البارز في المجلس». وأضاف المصدر أن «المسألة لم تعد موضع نقاش بعدما أعلن السوريون عن تعاونهم، ووافقوا على اجراء الاستجواب في فيينا»، مشيراً الى أن «الأمور باتت تسير قدماً».

In English:
An informed source at the UN said Mehlis refused to sign the cooperation protocol, adding that these guarantees that the Syrians talk about are meaningless since Mehlis does not have the authority to issue arrest warrants… there is no need then to give any guarantees.
The unnamed UN official is quoted as saying "the guarantees presented to the Syrians are the same ones presented in the security council. " Conclude from this that the guarantees have nothing to do with the return of the officials. In fact they are assurances and not guarantees. Russia probably reassured Bashar that there won’t be economic sanctions.

The Saudis seem to confirm that such guarantees do not exist:

One diplomat said last week Saudi Arabia was playing an "active and constructive" role in finding a face-saving formula for Syria to allow the questioning to take place, without meeting its demand for a prior legal deal. "Abdullah was very clear that those who were responsible must be brought to justice, and that that is non-negotiable," the diplomat said.
So the request for such guarantees was actually dropped after it turned out it was nothing but a delay tactic. (With Mouallem himself confirming that Mehlis has no authority to arrest anyone, why was Syria asking Mehlis for something they knew he cannot deliver? Now, if Syria really wanted guarantees, it should have asked not Mehlis, but the Lebanese authorities, who actually CAN issue arrest warrants. As far as I know, nobody has requested this from the Lebanese authorities.)

In conclusion, there are no such guarantees and there were never any that could be offered. Syria has finally caved in to international pressure. With the Syrian pound already suffering, Bashar really had no other choice but to agree to hand over the suspects for questioning.

Kuwait's al-Seyassah on Monday claimed (article continues here) something along those lines. It said that Bahjat Suleiman, who is identified as one of the five, is prepared to tell all if asked about the regime’s role in orchestrating the killing of Hariri. Bahjat, it is believed, is bitter about his marginalization by Assef Shawkat, who might not accompany the lot. Al-Seyassah adds that the Syrian regime did not receive any guarantees from anyone and that what happened is forced compliance with Mehlis’s demands after the latter's ultimatum. Although the Kuwaiti paper said Mehlis could ask Interpol to arrest whomever he deems suspect, I think Mehlis will leave it to the Lebanese judiciary to issue such a warrant, which is likely considering that the role of the UN commission, may I remind everyone, is to assist the Lebanese investigation.

So the Syrian claim of victory is nonsense. I mean when was the last time the Syrian regime willingly offered 5 of its security and military intelligence officials for questioning in a murder case that occurred outside its territory? Syria has just admitted its guilt because it has no other choice. The failure of Hizbullah’s operation’s last week meant the crumbling regime could no longer rely on playing its Lebanese cards (read al-Seyassah's Sunday edition on this. Here and here.). The regime is constantly being outsmarted by the Lebanese government and the international community.

The Syrian regime is gradually losing its own guarantees for survival. Not even a "confession" by a "false witness" can save it now (Syrian television on Sunday aired the "confession" of one the witnesses mentioned in the Mehlis interim report. The witness recanted his testimony, according to Cham Press. I have not seen the confession but I am sure we will read about it soon.)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Hafez and the 400 agents

It took two events for Syria to allow Mehlis to interrogate Syrian suspects in the Hariri murder.

The first involved a threat by Mehlis to refer Syria to the Security Council next week if the regime doesn’t quit devising stupid delay tactics.

The second involved Hafez al-Assad, who has made a comeback.

Read on.

In a surprise announcement Friday, Deputy foreign minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference that "the Syrian leadership has agreed to ... [Mehlis's] compromise proposal on holding the interviews of the five Syrian persons at the U.N. headquarters in Vienna."

Moualem said Syria received "guarantees on the right of the individuals, who will be accompanied by legal representatives, and on the respect of Syria's sovereignty." The unnamed five will return to Damascus after the interviews, he added. No word yet on whether Assef Shawkat will be among the chosen few.

The announcement comes a day after Moualem's boss, Farouk al-Sharaa, lashed out at Detlev Mehlis for allegedly refusing to sign a "cooperation protocol" over the questioning of six Syrian suspects. Sharaa said Mehlis's rejection of the Golan Heights as a venue for questioning raises doubts among Syrian leaders over his motives, adding that the German investigator's refusing to sign a cooperation protocol means "the commission is refusing to cooperate with Syria."

Sharaa left us on Thursday saying there was still "hope for the signing of a protocol" as sought by Damascus. But,

"if a country has asked Mr Mehlis not to cooperate with Syria, that is another matter," the foreign minister said, referring to Washington. "Syria is being unjustly targeted."


So this "protocol" that Mehlis "unjustly" rejected demanded that the questioned individuals not be arrested, among other ridiculous demands. The mere idea of a protocol between Mehlis and the Syrian regime is, in fact, a violation of UN Security Council resolution 1636 which demands full and unconditional cooperation with the commission. In any case, no legal authority anywhere in the world would agree to sign such a protocol prior to interrogating murder suspects.

Mehlis, tired of the Syrian regime's delay tactics and constant twisting of logic, reportedly threatened to refer Syria's helpless maneuvering to the security council for some disciplinary action.

Around the same time, God decided he had had it, especially after Sharaa's comments yesterday. In an unprecedented move that will not be recorded in any religious book (most major religions stopped redacting religious texts), God released Hafez al-Assad from hell to talk some sense into his son:

جاء ذلك بعد أن ترأس الرئيس السوري حافظ الأسد اليوم اجتماعا للجبهة الوطنية التقدمية – التي تضم عددا من الأحزاب السورية على رأسها حزب البعث الحاكم - لبحث قضية التعامل مع لجنة التحقيق الدولية .
وقالت وكالة الأنباء السورية الرسمية "سانا" إن القيادة المركزية للجبهة تدارست الأوضاع السياسية الراهنة والأوضاع على الساحات العربية والإقليمية والدولية" واستعرضت "التعاون السوري مع لجنة التحقيق الدولية".

In English, the first line of the above text reads: "This came after President Hafez al-Assad presided over a meeting of the national progressive front..."
To be fair to al-Jazeera, the mistake was AFP's and not theirs. But their editors missed it, which prompted my imagination to create the following ironic and surreal scenario:

Hafez: "You killed Rafik? Who built your palace? You shame me. Hand the bastards over", Hafez told Bashar. "I should have listened to your brother when he told me Assef is bad news," Hafez said.

While you ponder the absurdity of this situation, which pits a dead dictator against a failed one, I leave you with a tale called "400 agents" by the author of "Saad Hariri killed his father." The translation is courtesy of AFP, God's official agency.

Over 400 agents from Israel's spy agency Mossad are in Lebanon, Syria's official Ath-Thawra newspaper charged Thursday, the latest volley in a increasingly vitriolic war of words with Lebanon's new leaders. "You have to recognise the danger of having more than 400 men from Israel's Mossad in Lebanon who are working with the other (Lebanese) agents who once supported the Zionist enemyand its militias," wrote editor Fayez Sayegh.

"These agents are encircling Lebanon like a belt that will explode when Israel and its strategic ally the United States have decided," he said, charging that there was also an increasing number of agents from the CIA and European states in the country.

"All these agents came to Lebanon... to sow dissent, revive hatred, reinforce pressure on Lebanon and Syria and above all spy on national forces, the Lebanese resistance and Palestinians," said the paper.

UPDATE. It's on Elaph too! Hafez lives and is presiding over meetings in Syria!

ترأس الرئيس السوري حافظ الاسد اليوم اجتماعا للجبهة الوطنية التقدمية لبحث "التعاون السوري مع لجنة التحقيق الدولية" في اغتيال رئيس الوزراء اللبناني السابق رفيق الحريري كما افادت وكالة الانباء السورية الرسمية سانا.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Hizbullah and Israel meet in arrogance

Hizbullah and the Israeli war machine have a lot in common. Both believe that war is peace, and both arrogantly dictate the lives of people under their mercy. And they both are trying to kill whatever is left of Lebanese sovereignty.

Starting with Hizbullah, their latest unilateral attempt to “protect Lebanon” by kidnapping Israeli soldiers began by “firing in every direction.”

...shortly after 3 P.M. on Monday, Hezbollah fighters indeed broke into the village, firing in all directions. Some ran toward the Israel Defense Forces outpost, but found it empty. Others headed for the entrance to the village, where the house in which Markovich and his comrades were stationed was located.

"Everything around us was shaking," said Markovich, who began his army service just eight months ago. "One of the gang identified a terrorist. I shot him. Then they identified two more. I fired, and then again. The shelling generated a bit of pressure, but we functioned well. A comrade said, `There's a terrorist,' and I fired. It's all a matter of seconds, the entire business lasted about a minute." Altogether, Markovich killed four Hezbollah gunmen. But he insisted on sharing the credit with his comrades. "I'm not the hero of the day," he said.

"There were four of us there. One spotted and I shot. It's a team, with a commander. We simply ended up at the center of things ... This is what we train for."
Four young Lebanese men, men who swore allegiance to a cause sullied by their party’s unholy affiliations with murderers and despots, four Lebanese men in the prime of their youth died. WHAT FOR? For this:

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz noted that it was Hezbollah that requested the cease-fire - a development that he termed "a refreshing change." Moreover, he told reporters during a tour of the northern border, the Lebanese government also asked Israel to halt the fighting. "In so doing, the Lebanese government in effect acknowledged that it bears responsibility for what happens on the northern border," he added.
While Halutz is smugly bragging about his soldiers, Hizbullah was busy lying:

At 2:54 p.m. (1254 GMT), the Islamic Resistance confronted an Israeli force omposed of two military vehicles that had penetrated the Lebanese side of the village of Ghajar. A violent exchange ensued leading to the destruction of the two vehicles, and dead and wounded in enemy ranks, as well as three dead among the resistance fighters.
How can you tell it’s a lie? The Manar TV site refers to it as “operation” and has published a transcript of an Israeli TV broadcast detailing how Hizbullah tried to kidnap soldiers.

Siniora and Saad Hariri, cornered and rendered ineffective by Hizbullah, have issued statements supporting the “resistance”. Saad’s statement came from the safe island of Curacao.

Algeria meanwhile reportedly blocked a UN security council statement that would have called on Lebanon to extend its authority to all Lebanese territories.

The Algerian representative said this makes Hizbullah and the Lebanese government look like they are two separate authorities, while in fact Hizbullah is a legitimate Lebanese party and part of the Lebanese government," he said.

"Basically, what the Algerians said was they needed more time to study the document. And the U.S. representative made it clear they will not accept the statement unless it says that Hizbullah initiated the violence," he said.
To add insult to injury, Israeli warplanes intruded into Lebanese airspace today, dumping anti-Hizbullah leaflets addressed to "Lebanese citizens":

Who is protecting Lebanon, who lies to you? Who throws yours sons into a battle for which they are not prepared? Who wants the return of destruction? Hezbollah brings a strong prejudice to Lebanon. It is an instrument in the hands of its Syrian and Iranian masters. The state of Israel is watching over the protection of its citizens and sovereignty...
Nobody will condemn this or see its arrogance. Not when Hizbullah’s arrogance and danger to Lebanon these days match if not exceed Israel’s perceived danger.

Who lost here apart from the families of those young fighters? We did. The few Lebanese who have been calling for Lebanese sovereignty. Hizbullah started this last round, and Israel came in and put the final touches. Well done.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

It’s Hizbullah's way or the Beirut-Damascus highway

This Independence Day will find Lebanon free of foreign hegemony for the first time in many years. The Syrian ruler left his Umayyad stronghold in the east, releasing the Lebanese from offering their first-borns to the sub-deity of Anjar. Or so everybody thought until Hizbullah’s fireworks on Monday. True to their party-pooper nature, they ruined the celebration before it happened, creating an uproar among the Lebanese who rightfully resent their unilateralism and attachment to supposedly non Lebanese causes (on this, Hizbullah will disagree, for their Lebanon is different from yours and mine).

Many will be looking east again to blame Syria for this escalation. It’s a perfectly understandable thing to do, considering the Syrian threats and whispers about a plan of attack that largely depends on Hizbullah’s role to succeed. But in our rush to blame this on Syria, and even if it’s partly true, we should not overlook the reality of what we have here: a frighteningly radical monster that is on the verge of a de-facto usurpation of power that only one country can stop. Yes, sadly, only one country can stop Hizbullah, and it’s not Iran. It’s Syria. And this reality is being manipulated to the max by the Syrian regime, which is forcing the country to choose between Hizbullah’s way, or theirs.

Hizbullah’s power

The massive Hizbullah demonstration in March sent a powerful message to the then unified opposition: we are here and we are strong. Through this demonstration, Syria was able to make it clear that it still held the most powerful card in Lebanon. There is a powerful logic that must have guided the Syrian regime’s decision to eliminate Rafik Hariri. Lebanon is not the same country it was in 1943. A civil war and the Arab Israeli struggle have turned it into something drastically different from what the fathers of the National Pact wanted it to be. The Christians noticed the change in the 70s, and Cardinal Sfeir sees it today. Today’s Shiites are yesterday’s Maronites. You take out a powerful Sunni figure, you clear the stage for Hizbullah to step in as the only true and capable power in the country. The Syrian gamble was on the weakness of the opposition and its eventual disintegration. (And what do you know, Aoun comes back and along with Jumblatt they polarize the opposition and weaken it.) The inherent contradictions in the Lebanese system, pre and post-Taef and the lack of national cohesion mean that there will never be a strong national force to offset Syrian influence. Add to that the US apparent failure in Iraq and improbability of military strike on Syria, the Syrian planners must have thought they could get away with murder and re-strengthen a weakened regime. The Syrian regime was on its death bed before the Lahoud extension. Believe Bashar when he said the “plot” to take him out started before the Hariri assassination. Don’t believe him though when he says that he didn’t kill Hariri. Killing him gave Syria the chance to play the most dangerous card it has in its arsenal, the Hizbullah card.

Syria knows the power of Hizbullah, which it helped arm and build. Ironically, it was Hariri himself through his media and apparent loyalty to Syria before his falling out with the regime that helped turn Hizbullah into the monster it is today. Beside a few rare occasions when Hizbullah would spitefully ignite the southern front ahead of major business meetings or opportunities for the country, Hariri’s media machine invariably helped market Hizbullah as a national resistance even when Hizbullah’s own media called it Islamic resistance. Hariri “protected” Hizbullah partly out of loyalty to the Arab cause and partly out of obligation to Syria which in turn promised to let him transform the country into the Hong Kong he settled for after the failure of the Arab Israeli peace process.

Hizbullah’s power today is enormous, politically and socially. We would be mistaken to look at it as a mere Syria proxy, I think. Syria needs Hizbullah perhaps more than Hizbullah needs Syria. With Iran finding safe inroads into the threatened and isolated Syrian regime, Hizbullah has Syria by the neck. In the past, Syria under Hafez controlled Hizbullah’s lifeline and managed its activities to some extent. But Syria’s gradual weakening, which is both the result of the deadlock in the peace process and the success of the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon, has made it more dependent on Iran and Hizbullah than ever. A strong Syria is not what Hizbullah needs. A weak Syria that is dependent on Iran is god’s gift to his party.

Hizbullah tacitly went along with the Taef agreement because it knew it had no choice but to play under the Syrian rules. Hafez kept them as a pressure card against the Israelis, whose brutality and uncompromising position led in part to the collapse of the talks. The more the Israelis stalled, the weaker the Syrians became and the more powerful Hizbullah grew.

The third gate

So it would seem that we are being presented with two choices: Hizbullah or Syria. The first means perpetual state of war until Israel is defeated and an Islamic order is inevitable. The second means a return to a Syrian tutelage but with reduced Hizbullah power—an option that requires Lebanon to abandon the Hariri investigation and somehow help re-empower Syria to enable it to put a leash on Hizbullah. This is Syria’s bet. The Syrian regime knows that what Hizbullah represents is anathema to many Lebanese. In many ways, the Party of God is the PLO of this century. Somebody in Syria must think the Lebanese Christians have no choice but to cry “Help Syria” soon.

Naturally, neither choice is acceptable. This isn’t 1975 even if the similarities are there.

Lebanon’s only hope is someone nobody thought would play the role he is playing today: Fouad Siniora. Siniora was a totally unexpected development. Hizbullah will try to destroy him and Bashar has already started the process. Siniora holds the key to the third gate. What can he do? Wrong question. What can WE do?

Happy Independence Day.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Economist: Lebanon most liberal state in the region

The Economist on Friday said that "democracy is taking firm root in the Middle East and North Africa" and predicted that Lebanon will re-emerge as the "most sophisticated and liberal Arab state in the region."

Lebanon came second in the the magazine's Index of Political Freedom, which ranked 20 countries based on "assessments by The Economist's Intelligence Unit across 15 indicators. These included transparency, election of parliament and the head of government, corruption, religious freedom, rule of law, political parties, presence of an opposition and judicial independence. "

"The germ of democracy will spread in a number of less violent Arab countries," it said.

"Lebanon, in particular, will continue to shed Syrian influence and will re-emerge as the most sophisticated and liberal Arab state in the region. "

The Palestinian territories and Iraq, "two of the most problematic and volatile places", would take the biggest steps toward democracy in 2006, The Economist predicted. Iraq is due to have elections next month under its new constitution while Palestinians will vote for a new parliament in January. "The Palestinians' election is likely to be the freest and fairest in the Arab world," the magazine reckoned.

Saudi Arabia was ranked at joint 18th, "worryingly, given the world's dependence on its oil supplies," The Economist said, "despite its cautious experiment with municipal elections." Libya (20th) and Syria (joint 18th) were found to have made the least progress. "

Watch this space for more quotes from the actual Economist article. In the meantime, here is the list, courtesy of AFP ("The list shows the countries and areas in descending order of perceived political freedom, with 10 a perfect score.")

1. Israel 8.20
2. Lebanon 6.55
3. Morocco 5.20
4. Iraq 5.05
4. Palestine 5.05
6. Kuwait 4.90
7. Tunisia 4.60
8. Jordan 4.45
8. Qatar 4.45
10. Egypt 4.30
10. Sudan 4.30
10. Yemen 4.30
13. Algeria 4.15
14. Oman 4.00
15. Bahrain 3.85
15. Iran 3.85
17. UAE 3.70
18. Saudi Arabia 2.80
18. Syria 2.80
20. Libya 2.05

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hizbullah the new SLA?

When the big bad wolf was banished to the lion’s old forgotten farm, the warring dogs of the newly liberated state found that the citizens of their shrunken conflict zone, a handful of sheep and cows that inhabit a grassy hill called Shebaa, had little appreciation for heroism and egotistical freedom-fighting. Their sacrifices, at one time hailed and worshipped by many, risked becoming dust-collecting trophies from a long gone era. Desperate for fresh bounty, the warring dogs turned to the lion in the jungle of failed causes and barked a long painful: now what?

The lion, decrepit and lazy, showed them juicier and nearer legs to bite: their own masters’. So the haplessly hungry dogs of war divided their time between biting legs they once protected from the wolf and chasing their own conspiracy-plated tails.

Hizbullah’s degeneration into a mere Syrian proxy will have some comparing them to their former enemies, the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli proxy militia that ran the security zone on behalf of the Israeli occupation. And while Hizbullah’s soldiers are not running concentration camps, they are holding an entire population hostage to their fallacies and running multiple de-facto security zones in the South, Beirut and the Bekaa. SLA’s torture electrodes are suddenly no different than Hizbullah’s political bullying and intimidation. Doing it from within the system or from outside does not matter anymore, for Hizbullah’s politicians have proven that they are in the cabinet only as guardians of another country’s short-sighted interests and not their own country's.

Take the latest fuel controversy. Has it escaped some that the Hizbullah energy minister is responsible for that file? Have we forgotten the infamous Mr. X conversation when Ghazali sought to “let Hariri be the laughing stock” by unleashing protests and demonstrations against his government? To understand this strategy, look no further than Syria’s Tishreen “newspaper”, which is now predicting a popular uprising in Lebanon that will topple the Siniora government. That paper makes Siniora’s government look like the Vichy government and is projecting a public dissatisfaction with that government that only exists in Bashar’s mind. And the stars of that paper are no other than warmongering Hizbullah and failed politicians such as Zaher al-Khatib and Omar Karame. To Tishreen, these are Lebanese “patriots” with Syria’s best interest in mind! It is ironic that the mouthpiece of a Nazi-like regime is using another country’s freedom of expression to defend the rights of the “deprived” of that country. Go figure!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Can Lebanon leave Syria’s orbit? (updated)

On my last night in Lebanon, members of Amal and Hizbullah were roaming the streets of Beirut vowing eternal support for Syria and Bashar. Through obnoxiously loud speakers on generic looking cars, they offered their blood and their souls to Bashar, much to the dismay of many of their compatriots.

An LAU student I spoke to on the evening following the LAU student election that saw the Hariri and PSP (Jumblatt) lists defeat an alliance of Aounists, Amal and Hizbullah, relayed an unsettling picture from his small Beirut campus. He said scores of Amal and Hizbullah students gathered to pledge support to Syria’s Assad, who came third after Allah and Muhammad in their loud Ashoura-style chanting. Their style clearly turned the majority of the students off, driving them to vote for the Mustaqbal and Ishtiraki list.

During my short stay in the country, I would hear statements by Hizbullah MPs and officials that are not different from Bashar’s Thursday speech, even if they didn’t resort to name-calling. Mohammad Raad, on one occasion, accused Mehlis of running his report by the Israeli foreign minister before submitting it to Annan. On Saturday morning, at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International airport, Naim Qassem could be heard on the small television screens near the departure gate loudly promising Bashar that Lebanon would not be a passage for conspiracies against Syria.

Any objective and non-sectarian observer would note that Hizbullah’s talk of saving Lebanon from destruction is at odds with their insistence to keep the country in a state of chaos by allowing fringe Palestinian militants to roam freely in the country practicing offensive self-defense and receiving arms through a loose border with Syria. In Hizbullah’s outdated and destructive rhetoric, Lebanon has only one option: war. Lebanon’s enemy is external and Satan-like in its omnipresence. The only way to confront it is through a military fight. All internal problems are swept under the Syrian rug of resistance. In Hizbullah’s world, the concept of dialog is very much like Syrian cooperation: an exercise in time buying until Providence sends an emissary to nuke Satan. Lebanon’s fate, meanwhile, is made to depend on the fate of a dying regime—a death wish.

I used to think that Hizbullah’s participation in the government was a positive development. But Hizbullah has been using it to bully the cabinet and obstruct any attempt to refocus policies away from a destructive subservience to Syrian ones. Emile Lahoud might be on his political death bed, but Hizbullah and to some extent Amal, have taken over his obstructionist role. Sadly, Hizbullah’s growing influence never translates into work that could benefit their voters in the south and the Bekaa or even the Shia community as a whole. It is safe to say they are using their new power to obstruct and buy time for the cornered Syrian regime, and for themselves. Siniora even had to postpone the international donor's conference because Hizbullah and Amal still view foreign aid as a form of international hegemony.

Citing an American security official, al-Shiraa reported in its 14 November issue that security officials from Hizbullah and Amal continue to hold regular meetings with their Syrian intelligence counterparts in Damascus to coordinate strategies. Hizbullah is also reportedly providing logistical support to Iranian intelligence officers, who are monitoring “the political and security developments” in Lebanon from their headquarters at the Iranian embassy. In countries where rule of law and some degree of healthy patriotism prevail, this amounts to treason.

Meanwhile, Islamists continue to pour into the country from Syria, taking up positions in the refugee camps of Ein el-Helweh and Borj Barajneh and in the north of the country. The word on the street is that it is a matter of time before these groups, funded by Iran and supported by Syria, begin blowing up hotels and other places in Lebanon. Al-Shiraa mentions the “Ansar Allah” group, headed by former Fateh official Jamal Suleiman, as one such group that is training militants in al-Sufsaf in Ein el-Helweh and forming cells in other camps in Tyre and Beirut. The Lebanese weekly also reported that the “al-Da’wa al-Salafiya” group headed by “Abu Ibrahim” is “holding meetings in Tripoli with a group of Pakistani Salafists.”

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these reports, but they do seem to confirm that Syria’s plan of attack is nearing the implementation phase. If Hizbullah and Amal continue to buy time for Bashar and his group, the country will be plunged into mini conflicts featuring these groups and the Lebanese army. Judging from Bashar’s speech, the Syrian regime is incapable of realizing that such ploys will neither distract the international community nor pressure the Security Council into abandoning the Hariri investigation. After all, what options does a dying star have except collapse under its own gravity and suck everything around itself? It’s Lebanon’s misfortune to have been left in Syria’s orbit for so long.

UPDATE. Al-Mustaqbal claims that Aoun, who finally broke his silence over the Bashar speech, has been sending his son in law and representative Gibran Bassil to Damascus to discuss destabilizing the Siniora government. The Hariri-owned daily said Bassil was in Damascus just days ago. Aoun, al-Mustaqbal argues, had reached a dead end in his quest to become president and is now taking the "non-democratic" Syrian route via alliances with Hizbullah and pro-Syrian groups to reach Baabda.

Patriarch Sfeir, in a significant move Sunday, broke with Aoun by saying that Lahoud has to decide for himself whether “his remaining as head of state serves or harms his post.” The patriarch added that Christians alone cannot select the president and that a consensus similar to the one that led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army is needed to select a new president. (The Daily Star completely missed the significance of Sfeir's comments). With Siniora becoming increasingly popular in Christian circles, even beating Aoun, and the rising popularity of Geagea, I think Sfeir can now more comfortably express his divergence from Aoun's obsessive policies.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bashar declares war on Lebanon

Bashar Assad's inflammatory speech Thursday carried an informal war declaration on Siniora's government and is further indication that the Syrian regime is desperately trying to drag Lebanon and the world into a confrontation to shift the focus away from its own domestic and international failings.

Assad began by setting up the anti-Syrian plot scenario. Syrians must understand, he said, that demands for political reform in Syria are part of arrogant and humiliating international pressure on Syria. The flow of terror into Iraq, Assad griped, is due to Iraqi and US lack of cooperation with the regime, not the other way around. Assad's army has neither the technical capability nor the required Iraqi and US cooperation to enable Syria to do something about border infiltration. In his complaint, Syria's president unintentionally acknowledged that terror is in fact being smuggled into Iraq through Syria, and proposed the strange solution of other countries intervening in Syrian security operations to halt terrorism.

After a short obligatory bit on Palestine, Assad, who must feel cornered by Detlev Mehlis and Fouad Siniora, accused the majority of the Lebanese population of delusion, calling their increasingly popular prime minister a slave who follows orders from another slave, who apparently takes orders from the United States.

The ailing president (by his own admission he was recovering from an illness) launched a fierce verbal attack on Saad Hariri and his followers in Lebanon , describing them as ungrateful and lacking morals. Their anti-Syrian stance, he argued, make Rafik Hariri, whom Assad reduced into a pro-Syrian lackey, a traitor.

Assad made it clear that Syria cannot tolerate an independent Lebanon free of exclusively pro-Syrian policies. With the exception of few groups such as Hizbullah, all other groups are apparently working for Israel and have turned Lebanon into a passage way for anti-Syrian conspiracies. He blamed Siniora, the helpless "slave", of allowing Lebanon to become a "factory" of anti-Syrian plots.

As for the Mehlis investigation, Assad said he would humour the international community and "play their game" but only to the extent that Syrian national security allows. This means there will be no handing over of Syrian official and everything we've been hearing in the press appears to be an act of buying time. For Assad already knows the outcome. Syria will be accused of not cooperating and will be found guilty. The Mehlis report, he said, ended any doubt he had of a possible malfunction in the Syrian system that could have led to the murder of Hariri. Now, after reading the report, he is convinced that no Syrian was responsible and that it's all part of a pre-conceived plot to destabilize Syria and punish it for its Arab nationalist stance, and support for the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance.

In his opinion, Syria is faced with two options: resistance or chaos. Resistance is the cheapest of the two alternatives. In an alarmingly threatening tone reminiscent of Ahmadinejad's call to wipe Israel off the map, he warned that the smallest damage to Syria will have dire consequences on the entire region and on "the agents who brought the colonialist".

In what can only be interpreted as a call to mobilize his Lebanese supporters, Assad expressed confidence that Lebanon's salvation will come through historical remembrance and at the hands of the "national forces" that struck down past agreements with Israel and fought the Israeli occupation. He singled out "Tripoli al-Sham" for its "historic stance", forgetting that that city was nearly destroyed by the Syrian army in the 1980s.

Assad's speech was long and some of it was improvised. It was strongly worded, to put it mildly, and yet not surprising given Syria's predicament and the few options the Syrian regime has been given. Assad expressed it best when he said they were being asked to either be killed or commit suicide. He has realized that there is no winning the game in the short run. The "resistance" option could mean dragging Lebanon into military confrontations and further destabilization (more on Syria's plan of attack involving Palestinian factions here). At this stage, he can only offer the semblance of cooperation to buy himself and his regime time. I see his speech as a declaration of war on Lebanon, in the fashion I described a few posts ago.

It is unfortunate if not shameful that he chose to attack and denigrate Siniora, whose statesmanship is unrivaled in the country and the region. The Lebanese PM is guilty of outwitting and outmaneuvering the Syrians in their constant attempt to bring the Lebanese army into military confrontation with the Palestinians and cast Lebanon as a divided country between those that are with Syria and Arab nationalism and those against it.

Siniora's inclusive policies and constant consultation with most Lebanese parties have helped steer the country away from the kind of internal division Bashar and his group hope for and are working towards. He was able to contain most of the criticism, much of it by Hizbullah and Aoun, and prove he is, by far, Lebanon most respected politician—a true patriot who has been working diligently for the country's best interests. Under his guidance, the Lebanese army robbed the pro-Syrian Palestinian factions the chance to create a conflict with the Lebanese army that would have easily plunged the country into war. That is not to say the Syrians do not and will not continue to use that card. There are reports that the Syrians continue to smuggle weapons through the porous borders with Syria.

Bashar was clearly frustrated that Lebanon stopped being its vessel and cash-cow. If Rafik Hariri was guilty of anything, it was of buying into the concept of Lebanon as a Syrian Hong Kong. This was Bashar's vision for his country and ours. Syria, like China, could escape reform at home and create a more liberal economy Hong Kong style in neighbouring Lebanon. This vision failed, mainly because Syria is no China and Bashar and his ruling group proved to be no visionaries. Rafik Hariri, whose pragmatism guided his policies, eventually realized that Lebanon's survival as a state necessitated complete independence from the hegemony of its neighbor.

Many Syrians and their Arab sympathizers will cheer for Assad's "I will bow to no one but God" speech. It has all the classical components that appeal to their emotions. Many Arab stations, especially the ones he approves of (he also attacked the Arab media), will point out his "revelations" about Mehlis's alleged refusal to interrogate the suspects in Egypt and overlook the many conditions Assad imposed on the inquiry. They will not see an arrogant regime blatantly judging the decisions of politicians from another country, just because they don't serve the Syrian regime's narrow interests. Bashar has no right deciding what certain groups of Lebanese can or should do. He has no right expecting Lebanese people to marginalize those he deemed traitors, because just like the groups he defended, these people are part of the Lebanese fabric. Lebanon's choices are not Syria's choices simply because they are two different countries.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Syrian activist in Washington

Joshua Landis reported on Friday that Kamal al-Labwani
has met with US Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch. Labwani was a member of Riad Seif's civil society forum, which formed during the famous, but short lived, Damascus Spring (2000-2001). Both were arrested at the outset of the Damascus winter in 2001. He was released from prison last summer after completing his three year sentence and tried to start a new political party this summer, the Liberal Democratic Union (LDU) (al-tajammu'a al-librali al-dimuqrati).
Al-Labwani gave an interview to al-Hurra that I was able to catch Friday. Here is a brief summary that I typed in haste:

Al-Labwani said the Syrian regime has two options to get Syria out of its rut and avoid war. The first is to share power with the opposition and allow political pluralism in the country. The second is to resign.

He said that Syria's main problem is not so much the Baath party's ideology as it is the one-party rule. Breaking the one-party monopoly over power and organizing multi-party elections would bring democracy to Syria, he argued. He envisioned a scenario where the current regime would open up the system by giving key portfolios in the cabinet to the opposition and begin a 2-year transition to a democratic system. Bashar could keep the control of the army, al-Labwani argued.

A signatory to the Damascus declaration, al-Labwani believes that the regime's other option is resignation if it wants to avert a military confrontation with the United States and spare Syrian lives.

Al-Labwani's rather idealistic scenario of power-sharing in Syria clashed with his own pessimistic assessment of the regime's ability and willingness to reform the political system. He ruled out any chances of the regime implementing reform now or in the future.

So how can the regime be convinced to give up its monopoly and bring the weakened political opposition out of its division, exile and jail into the decision making fold?

"We want the United States to put political and diplomatic pressure on the regime," he said.

He did not elaborate, at least not convincingly, on what kind of political and diplomatic pressure can build a Syrian democracy in two years. His interviewer asked him tough questions about the opposition itself, and whether it can be up to the task he described, and whether the Alawites, the Islamists and the Kurds can join the coalition to basically change the political order in Damascus (when asked whether the opposition wanted regime change or a change in the regime, he repeated his two options scenario).

He said the regime has tried for years to weaken the opposition by sowing division and conflict among its ranks. But the "real opposition," he argued, will come from "the Syrian people… what we need to do is not rely on tired symbols, we have to open up the society and bring a new generation of opposition."

He seems to have faith in the Syrian people to turn the country around if they are allowed to participate in democratic elections that would bring new faces and powers to the political process. He said Syria would remain a secular state for all. When asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, and whether they would be willing to build a secular state with the rest of the Sunnis, he acknowledged that they (his group) were engaged in long and difficult negotiations with them. There is also the issue of the Alawites, whom he argued should not feel threatened if the Assad family ceded some power.

Al-Labwani said he told the US administration about all this, and warned them against heeding the calls of those who are seeking to topple the regime by force.

He strongly criticized certain unnamed members of the Syrian opposition for "whispering in the US administration's ear" that the current opposition is too weak to be the alternative to Bashar's autocratic rule. He said there is a current in the US administration that is advocating war on Syria to bring about regime change a la Iraq. When asked who in the US administration wants to go to war, he said it wasn't State Department, but others that he did not name.

Of course much of al-Labwani's solution hinges on the regime's willingness to cede some of its power to the opposition and create in a short period of time a multi-party political culture. Recognizing that, al-Labwani said the regime has no other choice if it wants to spare the lives of the Syrian.

He said the regime should stop begging for a deal—there will be no deal, he stressed. To avoid a "Milosovic scenario," or a "violent end" (like Iraq) and to spare Syrian lives, they should either share government with the opposition, or resign.

Al-Labwani seems to believe that a democratic change is possible, if the US exerts "diplomatic and political" pressure. Yet he doesn't, at least not convincingly, explain how that will force a regime that he described as unable to implement any serious reform, to allow for multi-party elections where" everybody will cooperate" for a "calm transition to democracy."

Al-Labwani returns to Syria this Tuesday (8 November.) According to Landis, he wants to get the word out that he met with US officials. This visit is a clear sign that some of the opposition in Syria, as Tony pointed out, does not mind using the US in its struggle against the regime and that taboos are falling in Syria. I think they are facing an uphill battle. My guess is the regime will manipulate the fear of foreign intervention to consolidate its power further.

UPDATE. Al-Jazeera is reporting (Tuesday, 8 November) that al-Labwani was arrested upon arrival at the airport.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Hafez and the 400 spies

Sorry, wrong link, go here.

Blaming the victim

There is this Lebanese music video that starts with your typical fashion strutting where males and females dressed in skin-tight clothing walk around a square flaunting their good makeup and hairdos to the camera, naively thinking their actions, or lack of, can move the non-existing storyline forward.

But what is atypical about this particular video is its explosive ending, literally. All was well in the world of Ghadi, the dark Lebanese stallion in Gucci wear, singing his devotion to a loved one who is predictably hard to get. The object of his obsession is a gorgeous Lebanese female of the kind most repressed Arabs would and do divorce their wives for. Anyway, the unassuming female is walking aimlessly in a square packed with young ones when BANG, a car bomb shatters her apparel and ruins her hairdo. She survives and our young singer, with her head in his arms, laments a dream nearly lost. Although silly and unimaginative, the video ends on a shockingly unsettling tone.

Lebanese and Arab music videos in general are rife with cheesy melodrama, but this particular one sticks out because it, perhaps unwittingly, reflects the current Lebanese state of mind.

There has been a lot of whining by Syrians and their apologists: Syria is the object of a US-Israeli-French-Palestinian plot (yes, Palestinian. Hizbullah's al-Manar shamelessly interviewed on Monday a Tehran-based Arab expert who added Mahmoud Abbas to the list of conspirators guilty of concocting lies such as the Mehlis report, to ruin Syria and Iran), Syrian society is being destabilized and a group of evil and ungrateful Lebanese want to cause the Syrian people undue harm through sanctions and unjust war.

Those Lebanese bastards. How dare they fake the death of their former prime minister and blame it on his killers! How dare they ask for justice when they really should be thanking their former dictators for their great sacrifice and selfless criminal dealings!

How dare they live like this:

Everywhere you go in Beirut, there are security people running checks on your car, bags, and body for guns and bombs. Metal detectors of the kind used at airports are the new rage in the city. If you look like you are approaching a shopping center, grocery store or parking garage, a bunch of security guards converge on your car, search it for bombs, go through your trunk and your belongings and then thank you for your cooperation. And before entering the actual grocery store or department store, another person opens whatever bag you are carrying and scans you with a detector.

This has been happening for quite some time, in the capital of the evil Lebanese who are wrecking Syrian stability. After a series of Syrian-sponsored bomb attacks in shopping centers and in people's cars, Lebanese people have quickly incorporated these security checks into their daily lives. Mind you, Lebanese people are famous for defying orders and hating to stand in line. But when their lives are at stake, and terror is the agent of angry past-rulers, they are taking no chances.

That is not all. There is the new redistricting of Lebanon.

The country has been divided into zones. Not by the police or the army, but by car thieves. Gangs supported by invisible Syrian intelligence officers who suffered a decline in income following their occultation, have divided the country into geographical zones, where each gang exercises its Syrian-given right to rob and terrorize people.

In zones outside the capital, heavily armed men in military fatigues ambush SUVs, blindfold their owners, rough them up, hurl insults on them and their mothers, and throw them into the back of their cars, after stripping of all precious and sellable personal effects. The small army of thieves, sometimes posing as "Lebanese military intelligence", proceeds to drive the poor victims in their own car for hours before dumping them in a dark location that's off the map and taking off with their bounty.

Beirut-based gangs are gutsier. They "carjack" people in broad daylight or in the early hours of the evening. Bystanders can do nothing. These gangs, militias really, are armed with machines guns and, some claim, rockets. Lebanese police is AFRAID of them because they are better equipped and dangerous. Some police stations in Lebanon don't even have cars, let alone sophisticated crime-fighting gadgets and weapons. As of the date of this post, the Lebanese army prefers to engage in yawn-inducing activities like standing on bridges in well-lit locations.

The SUVs are taken to a border town (Khreibeh, some claim) on the Syrian border. They are sold for cheap and smuggled into Syria, further undermining its "stability". Syrian intelligence officers in Lebanon, some say, get a cut. These cars are apparently smuggled into Iraq, where they are rigged with bombs and used to massacre people.

The above is based on personal accounts by people who have been carjacked in the past year in Lebanon (some more than once). The identity of the assailants is Lebanese with a Baalbeck accent.

When one victim tried calling a police station in Choueifat, an exchange like the following took place:

Victim: I have been carjacked.

Police: hold on.

5 minutes later

Victim: Hello?

Police: yes?

Victim: I have been carjacked.

Police: Hold on.

15 minutes later.

Victim: Hello?

Police: What do you want?

Victim: A group of heavily armed men stole my car, cell phone, terrorized me and my wife, threatened her with rape and dumped us in the woods.

Police: Hold on.

20 minutes later.

Victim: Hello?????????????

Police: Why are you still on the line? I am running out of units.

Victim: Can you send someone? I was carjacked.

Police: hahahahahahah… we don't have a car that works.

Dial tone.

That is not to say there aren't competent elements in the Lebanese security forces. They just don't have weapons and are outnumbered by the gangs terrorizing the country. This is according to police sources.

Hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for the rehabilitation of these forces have disappeared in the pockets of former pro-Syrian stooge Elias el-Murr (now a hero) and Syrian-Lebanese security services. Money was spent, however, to build security agencies to spy on and terrorize Lebanese and protect Syrian interests.

So next time the Syrian foreign minister tries to shift the blame by arguing crime could happen under the watch of any security service in any country, please somebody tell him to shut up and mind the gap in his brain.

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