Sunday, December 17, 2006

Syria - current profile

Human Development Index: 106th out of 177 countries (= ‘medium’ human development)
Arab Human Development Report ranking: 12th out of 20 Arab countries.

Population: 17.8 million (2004) of which men: 9.1m and women: 8.7m
Population Growth Rate: 2.58% (2000-05)
Urban Population: 50 per cent of the total in 2004
Ethnic Groups: Arabs 90.3%; Kurds, Armenians and others: 9.7%

Economic Indicators
GDP per capita: $1,238 in 2003
Average incomes of wage earners (PPP 2003): Men $5,534, Women $1,584
Poverty: 11.39% of the population are below the Syrian poverty line
(approximately $1 per day)
Maximum Regional Disparity: 19.88% in Aleppo (Governorate)
Unemployment rate among 15 to 24 year olds: 24.9%
Maximum Regional Disparity: 50.7% in Lattakia

Education Indicators
Adult literacy: 82.9% overall; and 74.2% among women
Literacy in 15 to 24 years age group: 94.8% overall; and 92.5% for women
Boys and girls reaching the 6th year of schooling: 93% overall,
of which: boys 96% and girls 89%
Maximum Regional Disparity: 76% overall in Aleppo, of which girls 75%
Females as a % of males in general secondary education: 104% nationally
Maximum Regional Disparities: 60% in Idleb; 70% in Raqqa

Health Indicators
Infant mortality: 17.1 per 1,000 live births
Maximum Regional Disparity: 19.56 per 1,000 in Hassake
Total fertility rate: 3.8%; 3.4% in urban areas, and 4.4% in rural areas
Maximum Regional Disparity: 6.21% in Deir Ezzour; 5.46% in Raqqa
Maternal mortality ratio: 58 per 100,000 live births
Maximum Regional Disparities: 91 in Raqqa and 75 in Hassake
Contraceptive prevalence rate: 47.4% in 2004
Maximum Regional Disparity: 20.4% in Deir Ezzour

Environment Indicators
Population with access to clean drinking water:
88.3%; of which 76.3% in rural areas, and 97.1% in urban areas
Maximum Regional Disparity: 45.8% in rural Hassake
Population with access to improved sanitary installations:
73.8%; of which 45.3% in rural areas, and 94.5% in urban areas
Maximum Regional Disparity: 13.9% in rural Raqqa

Sources: Syria Millennium Development Goals Report 2005, UNDP Human Development Reports, and Population and Housing Census 2004.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Double Standards in Riyadh and Damascus

In arms deals, it is normal for suppliers to inflate their prices in order to pay commissions to intermediaries. The intermediaries then share the commissions with government officials who have signed the contracts. In diplomatic language, a bribe is called "excess commission".

The British-Saudi deal which was signed last August for the supply and maintenance of 72 Typhoon Euro jets, is worth £40 billion over 25 years. The price of each jet fighter was apparently inflated by 32% to pay "excess commissions" to intermediaries and the Saudi Royal family. The Saudi government sees nothing morally wrong with this arrangement. It has threatened to cancel the contract if the British authorities persisted with their fraud investigations into an earlier arms deal with the Saudi government (the £43 billion Al Yamamah contract signed in 1985). The British seem today to have dropped the investigation in the interest of "national security".

Let us not beat about the bush. Some Saudi royals are corrupt in the sense that they abuse their public office (or more generally public trust) for private gain. There is nothing new in this and corruption is rampant in Arab countries and elsewhere in the developing world. The size of the bribe may be spectacular in this case but the same moral principle applies to a one dollar bribe.

One might blame the West for indirectly encouraging Arab corruption and destabilising the region, so they can buy cheap oil from it and supply unnecessary expensive arms to it. Perhaps there is an element of truth in this but it is the Arab moral double-standards that leave the door wide open for others to take advantage. Women are respected as mothers and teachers but abused as daughters, sisters, wives and citizens. Petty thieves have their hands cut off while government officials syphon off public funds on a massive scale. The Saudi Moral Police imprison people for leaving a shop open during afternoon prayers while the princes import prostitutes and alcohol by the plane loads into their palaces. I do not intend to preach morality to Saudi Arabia but, unfortunately, some Saudi royals have been setting dubious ethical standards for other Arab rulers for over 80 years.

On this blog, I am supposed to focus on Syria, but Syria is at the heart of the Arab world. After independence, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Syria upheld fairly high standards in public life. People for example used to joke about the legendry corruption of Egyptian officials and feared that the union with Egypt would compromise the hopelessly inefficient but reasonably clean Syrian bureaucracy at the time. How times have changed! Now our Egyptian bretheren are trying to put their house in order while Syrians struggle with endemic corruption and moral double standards at every level in society. This is what usually happens when nations allow their rulers to abuse their office, undermine the development of state and social institutions and repress the media.

Syrian governments have never lacked able technocrats who can talk to the press, or good bureaucrats who can interract with the public. But the balance of power has, over recent decades, shifted gradually towards a less professional, less ethical and less enlightened generation of unaccountable officials who are loyal to the regime. They have spread corruption and caused immense damage to the integrity of Syria's civil service, society's moral fabric and the country's reputation abroad. Any trust or real affinity between the public and government that might have exisited in previous decades has now almost completely disappeared. The government basks in its own praise and glory while the public sleep-walk into their daily lives totally oblivious to those in power.

Fraud and double standards in public life have driven a wedge between government and the people. This makes any effort to reform institutions and fight corruption difficult and ineffective. Reform by dictat never works and people cannot be expected to implement orders handed down by rulers who lack legitimacy and visibly practise double standards.

The crises which have engulfed the Middle East since July this year should not be allowed to obscure the moral rot that continues to penetrate deep into Syria's soul.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Talk to Haniyeh first, not Assad

This year, so far, hundreds of Palestinians, including 96 children, have died as a result of Israeli attacks and counter attacks on Gaza. By contrast, the number of Israeli civillian casualties from Palestinian attacks over the same period has dwindled to a handful.

Israeli army shelling of Beit Hannoun in Gaza two days ago has resulted in the death of 20 civillians, including women and 7 children, who were sleeping in their own homes. A leading Israeli human rights organisation, B'tselem, believes this action is a war crime. What are we, ordinary human bystanders, to think and believe?

The artillery officers who fired the deadly shells may not have intended to kill innocent women and children. However, since they cannot identify, arrest or directly hit the men whom they accuse of firing rockets into Israeli settlements, any shelling of civillian homes is, by definition, indiscriminate and intended to cause real harm and deter others.

But that is not the whole story. It would be naiive to think that the operations of the Israeli military and their political masters are driven solely by a sense of revenge or insecurity. The scale, nature, patterns and timing of the operations this year suggest more sinister motives. It seems highly likely that the real purpose of these attacks is to destabilise the Hamas-led Palestinian Administration and trigger a predictable Jihadi response from Palestinian "militants". Israel is still not ready for peace with the Palestinians because ultimately that implies re-drawing border lines and withdrawing from occupied territories in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. Most Israeli politicians prefer to see no progress towards a lasting two-state solution. The status quo allows them to continue to create facts on the ground, i.e. turn illegal settlements in the West Bank into larger and more permanent population centres. A jihadi response from the Palestinians serves their purpose as long as it can be contained.

We can all privately shed tears for the dead children. But they will be crocodile tears if we allow Israeli "militants" to continue to set strategic traps for Palestinian "militants". Both Palestinian and Israeli children end up paying with their lives or, at best, their future for the obstinacy and cynicism of their elders. The solution to this tragic 60-year conflict is still in the hearts and minds of the Israeli and Palestinian public, not in Washington, Damascus or Tel Aviv.

We can now hear some Israeli voices in favour of a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights. They probably think that if Syria is pacified, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Territories will be too. This is wishful thinking. The Palestinian cause has now been embraced by the entire Islamic world. There is no escape from a fair deal with the Palestinians. A peace treaty with Syria could not withstand the test of time without a genuine and permanent deal with the Palestinians first. Israeli politicians must understand this but prefer to bury their heads in the sand. While some Israeli politicians and the Syrian regime are calling for peace talks, both camps appear less than convinced that such calls would lead anywhere. The Syrian regime scores public relations points whether Israel responds to its peace calls or not but Tel Aviv cannot buy peace and security from Damascus alone.

The Road Map is dead and burried but the sooner Israeli politicians sit down with the Hamas government to talk a lasting settlement, the better for everyone. Israel demands that Hamas recognise her right to exist and cease supporting militants. In principle that is a fair demand but which Israel is Hamas supposed to recognise? The 1948 one? the 1967 one, or present day's? Shouldn't Israel too, in principle and as a starting point, recognise the right of the Palestinian people to a dignified existence on lands captured after the 1948 and 1967 wars? Compromises are necessary on both sides from the 1948 starting point but the real problem is that Israel has actively sought, over five decades, to erase from the world's memory where her borders started and would not say exactly where they will end. The separation wall is "work in progress". With Bush and the Republicans losing power in the US, Israel may well be persuaded to reconsider her unilateral and absurd attempt at forcing the world to accept the unfinished wall as her unfolding border line.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been complicated by Middle Eastern oil. Both the Israelis and Palestinians should have learned to compromise decades ago away from the gaze of regional and superpowers. Now that the Islamic fundamentalist genie is out of the bottle, the best thing Israel can do to secure her future in the midst of an increasingly militant Islamic region is to start talking to the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Dr Haniyeh is more reasonable and probably more enlightened than any future leader who might emerge from the wreckage of Beit Hannoun. Time is not on Israel's side.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A little more history....

The previous post was about a 70-year-old video clip of Damascus. This one concerns an article that was published in 1957 in a British military journal called "Flying Review", which I have picked up in a second hand bookshop in Cyprus recently.

The article is entitled "Syria - The Grim Facts".

It was written by a military analyst who feared Soviet expansion and the destruction of Israel and the Baghdad Pact at the time. It provides a fascinating insight into the regional politics of the time and names some Syrian army and intelligence officers who were in charge.

Here is the link. See the comments section of the previous post for instructions on how to download it.

Syria - The Grim Facts, 1957 (PDF file format, 3 megabytes)

Damascus in 1936

If you are interested in history, you can download this film clip of Damascus recorded exactly 70 years ago by an American traveller, Paul Devlin.

Damascus 1936. (AVI format, 14 megabytes)- see the comments section at the bottom of this post for instructions on how to download it.

Mr devlin was fascinated by the history of Damascus but not very impressed by its inhabitants. Remarks such as "not very sanitary", "the baker is not wearing gloves" and "cheap soap on sale but judging by the appearance of the people, there isn't much demand for it" really shocked me, but I found myself totally agreeing with him. Plus ca change...! Basic hygene is still a huge problem in the whole of syria to this day. Rather than be ashamed to admit it (and expect tourists to come back), people and the government should clean up their act. You can see camels wandering about in the city centre alongside trams and horse-driven coaches.

Syrian political prisoners freed

In the last few weeks several high profile political prisoners have been set free, including Michel Kilo today. At least the government seems to be relenting under pressure from Amnesty International and perhaps also Syrian expatriates (see There are still many prisoners of conscience whose families are not permitted to see them and whose fate is unknown. Judging by past behaviour, the regime likes to play cat and mouse games with dissidents. The low profile ones languish in jail without trial and at the rulers' whim and pleasure. The higher profile ones are "taught a lesson" then set free with the expectation that they will tone down their cristicisms or emigrate before they are re-arrested. Let's hope the prisoners release is the result of an enlightened policy change rather than the usual antics.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Man's cruelty to man

People used to think that landmines were cruel. How about DIME?

All credit to Haaretz for publishing this report today and the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights organisation that is raising the issue with the minister of defence. Pity the Gazan amputees and those whose internal organs have been incinerated.

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
Last update - 09:18 11/10/2006
Italian probe: Israel used new weapon prototype in Gaza Strip
By Meron Rapoport, Haaretz Correspondent

An investigative report to be aired on Italian television Wednesday raises the possibility that Israel has used an experimental weapon in the Gaza Strip in recent months, causing especially serious physical injuries, such as amputated limbs and severe burns.

The weapon is similar to one developed by the U.S. military, known as DIME, which causes a powerful and lethal blast, but only within a relatively small radius.

The Italian report is based on the eyewitness accounts of medical doctors in the Strip, as well as tests carried out in an Italian laboratory. The investigative team is the same one that exposed, several months ago, the use by U.S. forces in Iraq of phosphorous bombs, against Iraqi rebels in Faluja.

Israel Air Force Maj.-Gen (res.) Yitzhak Ben-Israel, formerly head of the IDF's weapons-development program, told the Italian reporters that "one of the ideas [behind the weapon] is to allow those targeted to be hit without causing damage to bystanders or other persons."

The investigation, by Rai24news, follows reports by Gaza-based doctors of inexplicably serious injuries. The doctors reported an exceptionally large number of wounded who lost legs, of completely burned bodies and injuries unaccompanied by metal shrapnel. Some of the doctors also claimed that they removed particles from wounds that could not be seen in an x-ray machine.

According to those who testified, the wounded were hit by munitions launched from drones, most of them in July.

Dr. Habas al-Wahid, head of the emergency room at the Shuhada al-Aqsa hospital, in Deir el-Balah, told the reporters that the legs of the injured were sliced from their bodies "as if a saw was used to cut through the bone." There were signs of heat and burns near the point of the amputation, but no signs that the dismemberment was caused by metal fragments.

Dr. Juma Saka, of Shifa Hospital, in Gaza City, said the doctors found small entry wounds on the bodies of the wounded and the dead. According to Saka, a powder was found on the victims' bodies and in their internal organs.

"The powder was like microscopic shrapnel, and these are what likely caused the injuries," Saka said.

The Italian investigative team raised the possibility that the IDF is making use of a weapon similar in character to DIME - Dense Inert Metal Explosive - developed for the U.S. military. According to the official website of a U.S. air force laboratory, it is a "focused lethality" weapon, which aims to accurately destroy the target while causing minimum damage to the surrounding.

According to the site, the projectile comprises a carbon-fiber casing filled with tungsten powder and explosives. In the explosion, tungsten particles - a metal capable of conducting very high temperatures - spread over a radius of four meters and cause death.

According to the U.S.-based website Defense-Tech, "the result is an incredibly destructive blast in a small area" and "the destructive power of the mixture causes far more damage than pure explosive." It adds that "the impact of the micro-shrapnel seems to cause a similar but more powerful effect than a shockwave."

The weapon is supposed to still be in the testing phase and has not been used on the battlefield.

The Italian reporters sent samples of the particles found in wounds of injured in the Gaza Strip to a laboratory at the University of Parma. Dr. Carmela Vaccaio said that in analyzing the samples, she found "a very high concentration of carbon and the presence of unusual materials," such as copper, aluminum and tungsten. Dr. Vaccaio says these findings "could be in line with the hypothesis" that the weapon in question is DIME.

On the matter of DIME, Ben-Israel told the Italian reporters that "this is a technology that allows the striking of very small targets."

The report says that the weapon is not banned by international law, especially since it has not been officially tested.

It is believed that the weapon is highly carcinogenic and harmful to the environment.

The non-governmental organization Physicians for Human Rights has written to Defense Minister Amir Peretz requesting explanations for the aforementioned injuries to Palestinians. Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to the minister, is supposed to meet with the group on the matter in the near future.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Poverty and wasted education in Syria

Reports published by the UN and Syrian Government in the last 18 months reveal some disturbing social and economic trends. Three of these trends are worth highlighting:

1) Some 11 percent of Syrians live under the national poverty line of two dollars a day. [Brief UN commentary (English) & full report (Arabic)].

Click on image to enlarge

2) Almost 2 million individuals in Syria could not meet their basic needs during the last two years. Overall poverty in the country hovers around 30 percent, and is highly concentrated in the rural Northeastern regions of the country. The bottom 20 per cent of the population consumed only 7 per cent of all expenditure, while the richest 20 per cent consumed almost half. [Brief UN commentary (English) & full report (English)].

3) Enrolment in Syrian public universities is dropping every year. More years of education make no difference in terms of salary differentiation. The number of post-graduate degree holders is continuously in decline. Only 20 percent of Syrian PhDs who study abroad return to enrich their national economy. Each of these facts point to serious structural impediments in the development of the Syrian educational sector. [Brief UN commentary (English) & full report (Arabic)].

The Syrian Government is fully aware of these trends and the impending fall in oil revenues. A common theme in several reports is the shortage of skills and brain drain. Many university graduates cannot find jobs either in the public or private sectors. They emigrate or end up doing menial work in the shadow economy which, according to the Government's own report, is estimated at nearly 40% of GDP. Reforms and foreign investment are still woefully inadequade. Syrian expatriates with the necessary capital and technical skills have no real incentive to return to a country that does not guarantee their human and legal rights or freedom of expression.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

King v President

Six years ago, the UN launched the Programme on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR). POGAR was developed at the request of Arab governments to improve government practices in the region. POGAR works in partnership with legislative and judicial institutions as well as civil society to identify problems and solutions and provide training.

Syria's governance, by international and Arab standards, remains very poor. There has been a slight improvement in the fight against corruption and liberalising the economy. However, on most key indicators, governance standards have deteriorated since the launch of the programme and appointment of Bashar Al Assad as President. The table below provides a summary of Syria's position both internationally and relative to neighbouring Jordan's (click on image to enlarge).

Jordan is a monarchy where the King enjoys fabulous wealth and wide constitutional powers. Syria is a dictatorship where the President enjoys fabulous wealth and wide constitutional and unconstitutional powers. Their populations know that both "hereditary" systems are corrupt and unfair, but it is a question of degree and intent. With such control, both King and President can make things happen. The King, and his father before him, have managed to put their country on the path of democracy and reform and make albeit modest but real progress. The President, and his father before him, have never been able to move the country decisively forward on political or economic reforms. Why? The main reasons are foreign policy adventutrism and almost unrivalled civillian administrative incompetence.

There is no sign that Syria's rulers are about to refocus their energies on domestic issues that matter most to the lives of ordinary people. Day by day, they continue to destabilise the social and legal foundations of the state, corrupt its institutions and distort its economy. As the old adage goes: absolute power corrupts absolutely; Syria sadly remains the living example of this.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Pope trouble

Why are religious sensibilities so easily hurt, and the hurt rarely forgotten? Many Muslims still seem to be angry and dissatisfied with the Pope's apology.

Could it be religious dogma? Religious dogma is just that; dogma, plain and simple.

One cannot really reason with people who are more ritual than spiritual. Rituality is the uncompromising, coersive and organising part of any philosphy, be it religious or political. Its purposes are to discipline the masses, protect their ideology and control them. Spirituality is pious, personal and open to dialogue. It transcends different faiths and builds bridges between them. Pious People do not attack each other or become easily offended by other peoples' comments and interpretations. Their relationship with their God is strong and intimate. Most spiritual people prefer to be teachers rather than community leaders. By contrast, religious leaders are generally in the business of reinforcing rituals, defending the faith and sanitising history to cover up their predecessors' misdeeds and fallability.

Today's Islam, as taught to the masses in the Middle East, is a triumph of form over substance. Threats, violence and street protests have less to do with the spirit of Islam and more with tribalism. Still, it would have been better if the Pope had not singled out Islam in his discussion of religious violence.

See also this excellent post by fellow blogger Ammar.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Prisoners of conscience

Syrian human rights activists remain incarcerated without fair trial or access to their families despite numerous international appeals for their release. The list is long but includes Mahmoud Issa, Michel Kilo, Khalil Hasan, Anwar el Bunni, Suleiman al-Shamar, Ali Abdallah, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, Kamal Labwani, Fateh Jamous, Habib Saleh and Aref Dalila. They are all peaceful intellectuals and civil society activists whose only crime was to call for democratic change.

Syrian Blogger, Fares has been working tirelessly to highlight their plight. This post is in response to his latest appeal to remember those who have lost their freedom in order to keep the rest of us free.

We demand their immediate release.

Here is a link to Amnesty International's index page on Syria and another link to a press release by, the Global Campaign for Free Expression. Whether you identify with their cause or not, please help to defend the right of fellow human beings to freedom or a fair trial by drawing attention to their predicament. You can copy and paste the above links into your own posts or refer others to this post. Thank you for your support.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

How to make peace & why America loves Israel

If Syrians and Palestinians want to trade peace for land, why don't they talk to the Israelis without preconditions, more openly and more often? Peace is not an event but a long process. It is about changing hearts and minds and building trust, so no one should expect a final settlement in less than 20 years. The desired outcome for Syria and Israel should be stated at the outset: the return of the Golan to Syrian sovereignty, free movement of goods, people and capital between the two countries and shared investment in the border regions.

A Palestinian state, as envisaged in the Road Map is a bad joke. It is not viable economically or politically. Both camps are wasting their lives and their children's future by staggering towards a dead end. The Palestinians and Israelis should aim to share the lands under a single secular federated state with different legal structures but one economy. This may take 30 or 40 years but a shared vision gives hope where there is none. Nothing is impossible and where there is a will there is a way!

Here is an interesting comment on the relationship between the US and Israel. It was written more than 4 years ago but remains relevant to recent events. The writer offers an emotional/psychological/social/religious perspective on the relationship rather than a political one, but that does not make it any less valid. I neither agree nor disagree with the writer's view.

The comment is being republished here because understanding makes for a better dialogue between nations and dialogue makes peace possible.

Why America Loves Israel
Contributed by : Carol Gould
(First published on Jewish Comment 27 February 2002)

In recent months, and most strongly since the events of September 11th, there has been a growing call around the world for the United States to “stop its blind support” of Israel. Arab academics have even begun to conjure up an image of a cowering United States being the “lackey” of Israel.

Notwithstanding a feeling of despair at the level to which military confrontation has grown in the territories conquered by Israel after the 1967 War, the concept of “American blind support” must be examined in perspective.

There are many remarkable similarities in the collective destinies of these two young countries. The earliest settlers in the New World were religious sects who had been suffering terrible persecution in Europe. William Penn, who landed in what is now the Port of Philadelphia in the seventeenth century, was a Quaker who, like so many other marginalised persuasions arriving on the shores of the spartan continent, was confronted with native Americans, fierce weather and, in the end, starvation. However “ and much to the present-day shame of politically correct America “ subsequent waves of Pilgrim Fathers and their feisty women took up arms against savage attacks by native Americans who were attempting to defend their ancient land. Soon, the “Indians” as they came to be known, retreated as wave upon wave of new European settlers arrived, but not before many blood-curdling battles had unfolded across the frontier. If the Indians did not die in confrontations, they suffered the devastating effects of European diseases to which they had no immunity. The final great war of white man against the native Americans happened as recently as just over a century ago in South Dakota.

Growing up in North America in the 1950s and 1960s, before the days of political correctness, one was taught of the supreme heroism of the Pilgrim Fathers and of the frontiersmen in resisting the brutality of “savage Indian tribes.” Without doubt the tribes in question perpetrated horrendous atrocities against the white arrivals, including the barbaric practice of “scalping.”

Nevertheless, American history was taught as a series of “us against them” sagas of spectacular heroism, culminating with the defeat of the “Japs” in 1945. My mother and her sister served in the United States Army, and their visceral dread of the Japanese was akin to that I encounter, even today, in elderly British veterans of the Pacific War and in survivors of Japanese POW camps. (Needless to say I was touched by the metamorphoses of human nature and its power to forgive when on a 1987 visit to my late mother she excitedly announced to me that “We are going straight from here for sushi “ when I had just arrived at Philadelphia Airport!)

Just as Israelis celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) with barbecues and fireworks, so do Americans on July 4th. Just as Israelis observe the major Festivals, so do Americans enjoy the four-day weekend feast of Thanksgiving. (All one has to do is see the African-American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese families passionately organising their respective turkey banquets in the film “What’s Cooking” to appreciate the universality of American Thanksgiving.)

Israel, like the American colonies, spectacularly threw off British rule with considerable force and bloodshed. It must be stressed here that The American War of Independence was a protracted, widespread and complicated affair. In Palestine, the departure of the British triggered the War initiated by the Arabs countries against a tiny, ragtag Jewish State already in existence as a sovereign nation but with pitiful resources.

It is therefore natural for Americans to feel an affinity to a small country that excoriated the rule of a large colonial power. It is also of significance that The United States” legacy of the Emma Lazarus “Give me your tired, your poor..” poetry runs parallel to the Israeli “Right of Return” laws. Nearly a million Soviet refugees have become Israeli citizens, as have hundreds of thousands of Jewish asylum seekers from numerous Muslim countries. The “nation of immigrants” concept appeals to Americans, their history books now acknowledging with sorrow the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, just as Israelis, still painfully only one generation from the Holocaust, have been forced by Benny Morris to reflect on the issue of displacement of indigenous peoples in 1948.

The mass immigration to the United States, though resisted by many in Congress and in the predominantly Anglo-Germanic Protestant-American institutions of the day, brought even more prosperity to America. Though Thomas Edison pressured the New York legislature to outlaw the formation of “moving picture” companies by “foreign nationals” (meaning Jews), the “outlawed” Louis B Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky and others promptly set up shop in California; the rest is history.

Taking the issue to the present day, there is another aspect of American-Israeli solidarity that is not often discussed. Notwithstanding the fact that British colleagues and friends love to tell Americans what they REALLY studied at school and what America is REALLY LIKE, (fascist, racist dictatorship filled with people who are too stupid and uneducated to recognise that they are victims of brainwashing and oppression) one has to have grown up in the United States to fully understand the impact of organised religion on everyday life. Americans go to church more often in one year than the average Brit does in a lifetime. Christianity ( I am not referring to Evangelism) has great meaning to Americans and the church is often the centre of life even in big cities and amongst sophisticated business people. Likewise, American Jewry is a dynamic community that wears its identity on its sleeve. Both communities are, for the most part, at ease with each other and it is common to find a non-Jew asking for a “heimesche” dish at a local eatery. In my early years, it was common for a non-Jewish friend to attend a one’s Passover Seder.

Conversely, my father, as distinguished a naval architect as he was, would never have gained admittance to the WASP bastion known the Union League, nor would my mother have ever felt welcome at a DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) function. Anti-Semitism is still rife in the United States, but it has not crippled the Jews from making a staggering impact on food, culture, science, architecture, the arts and commerce.

Israel, therefore, holds a significant Biblical symbolism for American Christians. Americans know their “Old and New Testament” and feel comfortable identifying with the events and places that pepper that remarkable document. Church attendance in Great Britain is at an all-time low, and at a recent Good Friday service the local vicar in St John's Wood lamented the tiny turnout. Not so in the United States, be it a Sunday or a festival.

From the days of Benjamin Franklin, the American tradition of a free press has been its salvation; over and over again it has rescued the United States from the grips of its own folly, from slavery to Prohibition to the McCarthy witch-hunts to the Vietnam War. It was the American press that exposed the Watergate scandal, saving the nation from an endless dynasty of Nixon and from mass imprisonments of “Dean’s List” subversives. Israel’s press has always been dynamic to the point of near-irresponsibility. In recent weeks the Israeli media revealed the late Daniel Pearl’s father as a distinguished Israeli scholar, perhaps in the end compromising Daniel’s safety. The Israeli press has always been brutally critical of its successive governments; in the Arab regimes nearby, such press freedom would result in long jail terms or beheadings.

Israel and the United States afford women equal rights with men. Although the Orthodox authority governs Israeli Halachah (Jewish religious law), therefore discouraging the ordination of women rabbis and often perpetuating the problem of agunot (chained wives), women are not vassals of their husbands nor must they be covered lest they be stoned to death...

The United States and Israel have a grand tradition of farming and technological advances. Like the American pioneers, the early Jewish immigrants, alongside their sabra brethren, turned a desert into an orchard under unspeakably harsh conditions and under constant attack from marauding Arabs (as did the pioneers in conflict with the native Americans.) This unites the two countries in a cultural bond that European critics cannot readily comprehend.

In the present situation, the world outside Israel and the United States has decided that Israel must be left to fend for herself (translation: at last the Jews will be wiped out and we don’t have to hear about bloody Israel anymore on the 10 o’clock news), and that the United States must be censured for supporting an “apartheid, racist, terrorist entity.” It is always the case that entities who themselves are seriously inadequate or “racist and terrorist” love to present the United States or Israel as the world’s biggest Beelzebub. Various anti-Israel countries are at present in the grips of so many internal crises of their own that it is a miracle they can function at all. European kingdoms during the height of Empire contain episode after episode of shameful repression, as does the legacy of every country heaping criticism on Israel and the United States.

How interesting that the continent that started World War I and World War II is the most vociferous critic of Israel. Had it not been for European imperialism and massive anti-Semitism culminating in the obscenity of the Shoah, the mass immigration to America of talented Jews would not have happened nor would Israel have had to be created.

Reality posits that Israel is a strategic ally of the United States and that its safety is crucial to the security of the American presence in that region. American money has helped build her massive military arsenal. Israeli genius has also helped develop weapons systems so advanced that the rest of the world drools in envy. Without doubt, the United States has funded Israel’s road to supremacy. But Israel is also a beautiful, free, enterprising, culturally rich and technologically awesome democracy and if the American people want to support her it is their right in a free world. There are 22 Arab states and 55 Muslim nations flourishing in a world with over a billion adherents to Islam. It is offensive to hear the world condemning America for choosing to support a tiny First World oasis in the Third World. It is abhorrent to hear the representatives of the rest of the world, at Durban in September 2001, shouting “Jew! Jew! Jew!” every time an Israeli or Diaspora delegate left the various venues at that shamefully hijacked conference.

Condemnation of the United States for supporting Israel, most recently in “The Guardian” newspaper, ( they refer to the Jewish State as “Palestine,”) is a dangerous and frightening development that can be equated with anti-Semitism. It is the equivalent of saying, “If you don’t stop helping Jews, you too will be taken away” (Gestapo, 1933 to 1945.) Whatever Israel’s shortcomings and grave, trigger-happy miscalculations in this new Intifadah, she has as much right to allies as do any other sovereign nations. The Palestinians have had the support of a clutch of Arab League countries for decades. The American media have even suggested that the most diabolical of extremist movements ‘ all haemorrhaging money -- have infiltrated Palestinian strongholds on Israel’s doorstep.

Those of us who have lamented the proliferation of settlements “ and America’s lack of criticism of this post-1967 phenomenon-- would nevertheless like to know if Arabs who have inhabited the hundreds of thousands of Jewish homes in lands from which Jews were forced to leave are also going to vacate those homes.

Much as one wishes to continue to support the Israeli peace movement, it is with increasing concern that one sees the non-Jewish press referring with excessive venom to “illegal Jewish settlements” and to “provocative Jewish claims on the Temple Mount.” (The Temple Mount is of profound importance to Jews.) When has a Muslim been turned away from a synagogue in the rest of the world, or been stopped from living in any neighbourhood they choose in London, Chicago or Paris” Except for the madman Baruch Goldstein, when have settlers set out to instigate waves of terror against their Arab neighbours” The settlers I met were hard-working Jews who wanted their children to lead virtuous lives out of harm’s way. They were not teaching their children to hate Arabs. What good does the British “Boycott of Israeli Goods” campaign serve when it is Palestinian workers (on settlers” lands) who are also deprived of a livelihood” The disproportionate condemnation of Israel by the world is becoming distasteful and merits regular vetting by Jewish communal protection groups in every corner of the Diaspora.

The accusation that a “Zionist lobby” drives American politics is another folly. Had this “lobby” been so all-powerful would the Al Gore/Joe Lieberman ticket not have buried George Bush in last year’s election” The number of Jewish legislators is pitifully small and the huge majority of influential American businesses are still run by the old Protestant families. It should also be pointed out here that Jews around the world would deplore the instigation of any violent act against Muslims despite the deaths of so many Israelis since September 2000 and despite the appalling rise in violence against Jews in France. Furthermore it would be unthinkable for any Jewish cleric anywhere in the civilised world to exhort his or her congregations to go out and kill Muslims. The Israeli and worldwide Jewish peace movement is substantial and it would be refreshing to see such outreach occurring in the Muslim world.

The United States should continue to support Israel. It would be nice to wake up one morning and read European newspapers staunchly supporting the brave little Jewish State and hearing Arab media lauding the rich maelstrom of Israeli cultural life. America loves Israel because it is a mirror of itself, and the reflection is more attractive than anything else on offer on the rest of this carping, resentful planet.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

You cannot teach a donkey to play the piano!

Click on image to enlarge

The incompetence of the Baath Party and Assad clan is legendary. Here it is, in the above chart, for all to see.

Average income in Syria has barely moved in the last 24 years, despite the oil wealth. By contrast, our Jordanian and Lebanese neighbours, who hardly have any natural resources, use only their brains to scratch a living. Jordan's average income has been growing for 14 years. Lebanon's has more than doubled over the same period despite Syrian meddling in its affairs.

What is Syria's excuse? Security? Wars? Eathquakes? Famine?

Is it not obvious that the economy and people of Syria have been left to rot for decades while their rulers have been enjoying power and fortune?

What will they do when the oil runs out in a few years time? Will they give up and leave us alone or will they try to pinch our last remaing pennies? Will they learn to do better or are they really like the proverbial donkey whose brains are too small and hooves too big to play the piano?

You get no prizes for guessing the right answers.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Syrian Jingoism hits the stratosphere

President Assad kept a low profile and refrained from making public speeches during the month-long battle in Lebanon. As soon as the cease fire came into effect, he declared a “glorious victory for the resistance” and attacked Lebanese parties that wanted to disarm Hizbullah and Arab rulers who had accused it of adventurism. He then went on to replay an old record for the Israelis and Americans: “give-me-back-the-Golan-or-I’ll-sacrifice-any-number-of-Lebanese-and-Palestinian-lives-in fighting-you”. The German Foreign Minister, who wanted to bring Syria in from the cold, in spite of US and EU opposition, cancelled his trip to Damascus upon hearing Assad’s speech.

During the fighting in Lebanon, Assad clearly did not know which way to jump. The price that he could exact from the West for his silence and acquiescence was also not high enough.

No one seems to have forgotten the Hariri investigation and no offers on the Golan have been forthcoming. German promises of technical assistance and grants from the EU to help reform his administration are not, what you might literally call, up his street.

Does he feel frozen out and cheated by the West? Of course he does. What else could explain his jingoistic outburst and hollow defiance? Syria’s foreign policy is now so bankrupt, blatantly mercenary and regime-centric that it has nowhere left to go except Iran, Belarus and North Korea.

Syria is holding herself out as the only “noble Arab country” to resist US and Israeli hegemony over the region, expose their weaknesses and humiliate them on the battlefield through Hizbullah. At the same time, Syria wants Israel to hand back every inch of the Golan Heights (which she won in battle) with the blessing of the United States. Syria wants a land-for-peace deal but Assad complains that neither Israel nor the current US administration is interested in peace. He also attacks the Europeans and Arab rulers for acting as US stooges. Syria has no real answer to its severe isolation except to serve Iran’s nuclear ambitions and political doctrine in the region.

It has not occurred to the regime that they can earn the respect and friendship of the world, as well as a place at the negotiating table, by winning an honest election. They cannot comprehend that their illegitimacy makes them an untrustworthy partner in peace and a false representative of the people of Syria and their values, aspirations and wishes. It has not crossed their minds that the Syrian people can no longer feed on empty slogans. It does not bother them that antagonising so many nations and powers at the same time leaves our country vulnerable to an attack and a crushing defeat. Should such an attack be mounted against Syria, the Assads and their cronies would be the first to slip away. They would not be short of funds, foreign property or foreign passports to ensure a comfortable life for themselves and their offspring away from all the “human garbage” in Syria.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ronald Reagan was right after all

"History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap".
You can mock an actor-turned-President, but his words still ring true.

Israel, Iran and Syria seem to believe, each in her own way, that provocation and aggression are cheap compared to the gains. The price is lives lost and the benefit is more security and glory for the living.

They all seem to have got their arithmetic horribly wrong.

Israel has lost not only more lives than expected, but also her invincibility and the moral high ground. Thus far, she has neither secured her future peace nor achieved eternal glory.

Iranian and Syrian rulers do not care much for lives lost, because they belonged to poor Lebanese villagers and the dead are martyrs on their way to heaven. The rulers have won public opinion and the propaganda war. They are losing the Hizbullah card but gaining another by radicalising the Iraqi Shia. Syria does not want be sidelined by the superpowers, but she will be. Iran wants to become a regional and nuclear power but she will not be allowed to.

So, are we back to square one, where it all starts all over again?

Tony Blair thinks it all hinges on an equitable resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How original and how profound! Still, it is a welcome restatement of the blindingly obvious and better late than never. So, why don't we all sit back and let the Hamas and Israeli governments hammer out an agreement all by themselves? It seems that secret negotiations had already been underway between senior Hamas government and Israeli parliamentary figures when the current crisis broke out (or more accurately was provoked). Extremist elements on both the Israeli side and exiled Hamas-Syria-Iran axis side wanted to scupper the negotiations.

The Lebanese and their children are still paying with blood for the arrogance, miscalculations and brinkmanship of Iranian, Israeli and Syrian rulers. The US neocons were never going to be anthing but amoral sponsors of Israeli military deterrence-cum-aggression. Rumsfeld, Cheyney & Co will not be troubled by the loss of Arab or Israeli lives so long as oil remains on tap, new weapon systems can be tested and sold in the region and reconstruction work is paid for by the American tax payer.

It is high time that the Israelis and Palestinians settled their differences and shared the land equitably. The conflict has ruined the lives of two generations already and ordinary people on both sides are exhausted. Failure to turn this ugly war into a lasting peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will ensure that other powers will continue to exploit the conflict to their own advantage.

Will Mr Olmert and Mr Hanniya have the courage and vision to make their peoples' dreams come true? I hope and wonder.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

A country for rent

Syria is not used to being its own master. Before independence in 1946, it had been a part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries and a French protectorate between the first and second World Wars. Soon after independence, and until 1991, it was a client of the Soviet Union. Earlier this year, it has turned itself into a client of Iran.

Syria's support for the Palestinians since well before the creation of the State of Israel has always resonated well with the emotional Arab masses. Most of the time, this support has been blind, insincere or selfish, rather than constructive. Strategically, it is the kind of support that the Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian populations could have done without. It has resulted in three wars with Israel (1948, 1967 and 1973) which led to the expansion of Israeli settlements over much of Palestine, the pillaging and destruction of Lebanon, the loss of the Golan Heights and the stifling of Syria's own political, cultural and economic development. It is the kind of destructive support that Iran and Al Qaeda have also been dishing out, which the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has publicly stated that the Palestinians did not need or want.

One of Syria's answers to its own security and economic concerns has been to maintain control of a clandestine network of intelligence and militia groups in the region. The purposes of this network are to protect the country and the regime, gather information, intimidate opponents and serve, or otherwise, sabotage the interests of other powers. This Mafia-like network has allowed the regime to punch well above its weight in the last three decades. Hizbullah, which is armed and financed principally by Iran, remains one of the strongest elements in this network. The regime's alliance with Iran is pragmatic but strategically misguided and dangerous. It allows Iran to use Syria as a regional hub for supporting Hizbullah and other clandestine groups, but Syria cannot be described as an ideological extension of Iran. The alliance affords the Syrian regime a measure of protection against Western powers which have been trying to impose their own democratic and liberal ideologies on the region. The regime opposes these ideologies because they threaten its very existence and harm the economic interests of its own supporters. Moreover, such ideologies, rather conveniently for the regime, arouse deep suspicions among the Arab masses, which believe that regime change can only serve the interests of Israel and Western powers. Few bother to draw a distinction between imposed regime change and gradual, genuine democratic transformation from within.

Syria's foreign policy is shrewd and pragmatic but its currency is extortion and sabotage. It is immensely harmful to the cultural and economic development of the people of Syria and their relations with their neighbours and other civilised nations.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Syria has had an opportunity to re-shape its policies and carve out a niche for itself in the new world of productivity and creativity. Its rulers have, instead, remained entrapped in their own laberinth of clandestine networks and enslaved by their own extortionist policies. As the civilised world has begun to shun them, and their tiresome tactics, they have turned themselves, in their desperation, into rent boys for the CIA and Iranian Mullahs. How proud a Syrian can you be?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Democracy pronounced dead .. the sequel

...Prof. Joshua Landis also said that Assad:
"..argued, in essence, that Syria was too backward to sustain Western-style democracy. He claimed that “tribalism” had haunted Syria for 2000 years and that sectarianism was too deeply rooted and too close to the surface of society to permit Western–style freedoms. If unleashed, these ancient loyalties would cause civil war and chaos. In short, he argued, in contrast to Bush, authoritarianism is necessary in the Middle East, where national consciousness remains weak."

Philip I said:
Whether these are Assad's exact words or not, they sound like a school teacher who comes into the classroom and declares all the children to be ignorant, naive and descendent from monkeys.

Let's assume for a minute that he is right. As a teacher in a position of authority and trust, is it not his duty to teach the children the basic principles of free thinking and democratic behaviour?

It looks as if the teacher is happy to take the children's money, drill them daily into singing his praises and admiring his pictures, smack them in the face when they ask an intelligent question and beat them up when they do not march to his orders.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

They claim democracy is dead

Prof. Joshua Landis on Syria Comment (26 July) proclaims Assad to be the clear winner from the current mayhem in Lebanon. He vociferously defends authoritarian rule in Syria and the Middle East generally.

Here's my comment:

Death of democracy?

Joshua, you are right about one thing: the regime has survived to fight another battle. Let's not dwell on who engineered this dubious success and at what price to the Lebanese nation. Murderers can be brilliant at executing their plans!

As to the mix of arguments that you present in favour of autocracy in the Middle East, you overlook a key point. Democracy in the Middle East has been nipped in the bud everywhere it it has tried to establish deeper roots.

It does not suit Israel to have a democratically elected Hamas government because Hanniya has exposed her hypocracy and so she has undermined him by arresting his ministers, blasting his ministries out of existence and destroying the Gaza infrastructure with the help of the radical elements within Hamas. How could you possibly pass a judgment of failure on the Hamas government?

Lebanese democracy exposed the deep divisions within Lebanese society but that is no reason to destroy it as a mechanism for peaceful national dialogue. Hizbullah, Iran and Syria chose to fight their battle with Washington on Lebanese soil and with Lebanese lives. How could democracy develop against such wanton destruction?

In Iraq, democracy is not the cause of sectarian massacres but the American invasion and continued presence of foreign troops are. Had Saddam Hussein been a democrat, Iraq would have become one of most advanced nations in the Middle East.

In Egypt, Algeria and Jordan democratic elections revealed widespread support for Islamist parties. This was scary for the autocratic regimes and the West generally. However, the shift towards Islamist parties is a reaction to political corruption and economic failures. Jordan was wise enough to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to fight the elections and win. Now they have fallen out of favour with the electorate because, as it turns out, they do not have all the right social and economic answers to the country's problems.

I am surprised that you come out in favour of autocratic rule, knowing full well that it means a slow death for social and economic development. It is clear that despotism drives away the middle classes, stifles free thought and corrupts governments.

There is nothing inherently faulty within any society that prevents it from having an open system of government. There is something seriously faulty in the minds of those who think they can play God with the lives of other people.

Lebanon: the final episode

The next two or three weeks are likely bring about an international agreement on the following:

- a cease-fire
- partial disarming of Hizbullah
- return of Sheba Farms to Lebanese or syrian control
- exchange of prisoners
- a buffer zone to be policed by international and Lebanese armed forces
- an international aid package for displaced Lebanese and the economy

Syria will be politically sidelined but secretly rewarded for backing off from supporting Hizbullah militarily during the current crisis. The reward may be bigger for a pledge not to supply Hizbullah with arms in the future.

Iran will be practically ignored as a dialogue is unlikely to yield practical results.

Hizbullah will be weakened but still remain a dangerous fighting force until it is completely disarmed. But that's another day's march.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

3 million Syrians live in misery, how many Lebanese have joined them now?

Click on graphic to enlarge

UN statistics combined with unofficial estimates suggest that 40% of the Syrian labour force is unemployed. Syrian official figures show only a 13% unemployment rate.

Syria's population growth is one of the highest in the world. Many families live below the poverty line and the use of child labour is widespread. Following the Hariri assasination, more than 800,000 Syrians lost their jobs. The government pays lip service to economic and social reforms and argues that political reform is not necessary to ensure economic success (look at China, they say). The Chinese must be wondering if the Syrians will reach the moon before they do next year!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Spectator sport

In the blue corner, loudmouthed featherweight Hizbullah. In the red corner heavyweight Israel, pumped-up on steroids.

Bungling promoters, Iran and Syria, watch with horror as their punchdrunk champ nears collapse. Strike-below-the-belt Uncle Sam cheers on his Star of David who is now lashing out at the spectators.

The blue corner are undeterred. They push their champ back into the ring and order him to sit still until the last spectator has been crushed by the Star of David.

That way no one will suspect that the bout was fixed, no one will ask for their money back and the bungling promoters and Uncle Sam will live to tell the tale.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

And on the 12th day of bombing..

The Hizbullah Chief, Sheikh Nasrallah, warned on the 3rd day that his missiles could reach targets well beyond Haifa (Tel Aviv?). So why hasn't he used them? Lebanon has been flattened and the Israelis are after him and his men, so what has he got to lose now?

Most probably he was bluffing, as many ragtag Arab chiefs have done before him since 1948. Or, perhaps he was hoping that Syria and Iran would replenish his stockpile and extend his missile range as the Israelis advanced towards his positions.

Syria and Iran would not have been foolish enough to supply Hizbullah with long range missiles. Doing so would have meant losing control of both Hizbullah and the political initiative. Israel must have known this and has acted quickly to cut off all conceivable supply routes to Hizbullah at an enormous cost to the Lebanese nation.

Hizbullah, Iran and Syria have already lost this battle.

They will probably live on to fight another "strategic" one against Zionists, Crusaders and imperialists, but always ensuring that they sacrifice someone else's children in the name of their Islam, resistance and steadfastness.

For the true Lebanese patriot, the alternative is not defeatism and submission to foreign powers but realism, social justice and political freedom. Hizbullah's raison d'etre has been to deliver social justice to the long-neglected Shia community in Lebanon. Both Iran and Syria are to blame for turning it into a ruthless fighting machine and a state within a state. Israel must also bear responsibility for the militancy of Hizbullah by pounding Shia villages and causing much human misery in the South of Lebanon for decades.

Since 2000, there has been absolutely no justification for Hizbullah as an armed force but, unfortunately,every reason for it to continue as a social movement in the eyes of the Shia community.

Left well alone, the Lebanese nation is more than capable of building a decent and progressive society and a vibrant economy.

The Lebanese deserve not just sympathy but the solid support of every honest and fairminded human being on earth.

Condoleezza Rice? Please spare us the theatrics, stay at home and practise your piano.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Free Arab women to bring up mentally balanced leaders

Ammar said (in "The death of Hope)":

"After all, ours is an authoritarian culture, in both the political and socio-religious sense, and the personal ambitions, avarice and temperaments of the leaders and rulers involved tend to be the final and most decisive factors in setting the main guidelines for the state’s policies, both domestic and foreign."

Philip I said:

Ammar, a perceptive post that lays bare the delusions and prejudices of the typical Arab mindset.

If psychoanalysts are to be believed, these are emotional disorders which develop from an early age in response to excessive authority or neglect.

At the risk of stating the obvious, nation states are made up of artificial institutions and family units. These units either nurture or stifle the mental and emotional develpment of the individual.

Culture and religion play an enormous part in the way parents and schools raise children and institutions develop and inspire adults to assume specific social roles including leadership.

The emotional disorders and prejudices that we observe are the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is a great solid mass of attitudes, convictions and memories that cannot just melt away.

Wars can bring about abrupt and fundamental change to societies. For example, in Europe, after the first world war, women demanded more rights and were able to fight off excessive male domination in the family and in public and private instituions because they sacrificed so much during the war and many men were killed. The result was that the female half of Europe quickly became more productive and better organised. Europe's institutions became more creative, more flexible and more socially fairminded.

War or no war, human history shows that unless the Arabs change their attitudes towards women, they have no hope in hell of developing into healthy and strong societies that can produce good managers and mentally balanced leaders.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Azmi Bishara - an unsung Arab-Israeli hero

"..he also edited a series of fifteen brochures and school books for teaching democracy and democratic principles in Arabic."

His life and actions speak for themselves...

[From Wikipedia]
Azmi Bishara (عزمي بشارة) (born July 22, 1956) is an Israeli Arab politician and an elected member of the Knesset. Bishara was born in Nazareth into a Christian Palestinian family, though he is explicitly secular.

He was the first Arab member of the Knesset to run for Prime Minister. He is controversial in Israel because of his support for turning Israel into "a state of all its citizens", as he criticizes Israel's nature as a "Jewish state" and its state ideology of Zionism.

Bishara has been a member of the Knesset since 1996 and is a founding member of the National Democratic Assembly in Israel, also known as Balad, a political entity representing the Arab minority in Israel under the banner of liberal democratic values. Balad and Azmi Bishara believe that equality in Israel rests upon the separation of religion and the state and the transformation of Israel from a "Jewish state" to a state of its citizens. As such, the NDA combines the struggle for national rights and democracy into one political program, supporting both the Israeli Arabs' power to run their own cultural affairs and the desire of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to live in an independent Palestinian state. Azmi Bishara is responsible for many of the major concepts of debate in public and political life of Israel.

Bishara, also considered a public intellectual, publishes writings in Arabic, English, German and Hebrew, on the issues of democracy and civil society, national minority rights in Israel, Islam and democracy, and the Palestinian question both in Israel and outside of it. He is the editor of a book on the philosophy of enlightenment (Hebrew), a book on identity and contruction of identities (Hebrew) and the author of five other books, A Contribution to the Criticism of Civil Society, A Reading in a Ruptured Political Discourse, The Palestinian Intifada and Its Reflections in the Israeli Public Opinion, Theses on a Deferred Awakening, and his last book: From the Jewishness of the State to Sharon. He also published two novels of a planned trilogy: The Checkpoint (2004) (available in French translation and a Hebrew translation is forthcoming) and Love in the Shadow Zone (2005). Bishara has contributed articles to many books that deal with nationalism, Islam and democracy, the Palestinian issue, and minority rights; he also edited a series of fifteen brochures and school books for teaching democracy and democratic principles in Arabic.

Early in 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected five appeals presented by the Attorney General and supported by Israel's right-wing parties that would have prevented Bishara and his party, Balad, from running in the national elections. Bishara ran and won for a third term.

In 1974, Bishara established the first National Committee of High School students, and in 1976, he was instrumental setting up the Committee for the Defense of Arab Lands, as well as the first National Arab Student Union. Upon completing his Ph.D in philosophy at Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany, he joined the faculty of Bir Zeit University in 1986, and went on to head the Philosophy and Political Science departments until 1996. Additionally, Bishara was the director of research at the Van Leer Institute between 1990 and 1996.

Bishara has been awarded the “Ibn Rushd 'Averroes' Prize for Freedom of Thought” for the year 2002 in Berlin, May 14, 2002 and the Global Exchange Human Rights Award for the year 2003 in San Francisco May 22, 2003

One of his articles
Arab Association for Human Rights (Israel)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Look into Hizbullah's soul, then your own

Since the 1920's, we in the Levant have had the misfortune of being ruled by a cocktail of elitist liberals, vengeful villagers, tin pot kings or psychopathic army officers.

Hizbullah is the product of long-term marginalisation and oppression of Shia Muslims in the Middle East. It is also the embodiment of an over-zealous ideology that rejects secularism and nationalism for a utopian Islamic state. Iran has nurtured it since its infancy in the early 1970s and the Syrian regime has used it as cannon fodder against Israel and its own enemies.

We are now paying the price for allowing ourselves to be ruled by generations of people who neither learn from human history nor care about human life or human potential.

Don't just blame Hizbullah for bringing death and destruction to the poor Lebanese people.

Look into your own soul and ask yourself if you have fought hard enough for freedom, tolerance and social justice. In all honesty I have not. But gazing through the blood-splattered TV screens, I am certainly not going to stop trying.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Machiavelli Never Died

Comment on a post today on the Joshua Landis Syria Comment Blog ("Will Syria Get Respect?").

"activelistner" said:

"The Americans now need to choose sides, not between warring parties, but between right and wrong."

Philip I said...

Right & wrong, black & white, good & evil are, sadly, for the masses, not politicians or army commanders. You can be sure of one thing: foreign powers, however friendly, will do what is in their best interests. They may bend in the short term, but only to benefit more in the long term. The best intentioned and upright of politicians will lose his virginity upon joining the executive and regain it only after leaving political life.

Let's get this right. America (rather uncleverly) has given Iran strategic depth in Iraq by "liberating" the Shia majority. The Assads had already done so in Syria and Lebanon. So, there you have it. Now Israel and half of Europe are theoretically within range of Iraninan missiles and fanatical brand of Islam.

This is what the fight is all about. And yes, there is a deal between the Assads and the US to save their skin in exchange for Hizbullah's.

You'd better move your family to Damascus while all this is being played out.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Love Your Enemy

The headless torso of this little Palestinian girl says it all.

Israel rules the skies. She can blast any nation around it out of existence with complete impunity, and with political cover from the world's only superpower. She sits on a massive arsenal of state-of-the-art conventional weapons as well as chemical, biological and nuclear warheads. Everyone knows this.

The pig-headed and callous Syrian leadership and its Iranian backers can do no more than engage in political brinkmanship and fight limited battles by proxy, and they know it. Like a wounded beast, the Israelis retaliate with increasing venom, but also with the clinical precision of a nation that knows where it is going, what it wants and how to get it.

Israel simply wants to use the Palestinians as slave labour, keep most of the land she occupied in the 1967 and 1973 wars, control water resources in the region and deter her enemies. She goes about achieving her targets with patience, resolve, hard work and intelligent planning. America is a dumb beast ruled by capitalists and religious evangelists. The Israelis and Jewish organisations have worked hard for decades to win America's support and now work even harder to keep it. But the dumb beast also identifies with hard work and creative zeal.

Am I a closet admirer of Israelis and Jews? You could say so. Most of them are enlightened and determined achievers and they know how to organise themselves. I detest their colonisation of post-1948 Palestinian lands and the Golan Heights, and Nazi-like mistreatment of the Palestinians, but no one can deny that they have contributed a great deal to science and culture in the last two centuries and I want the Arabs to learn from them. I want ordinary Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians to reject the futile politics of hate, revenge and brinkmanship and think more maturely for themselves and about their future.

The facts on the ground are blindingly obvious to all who want to see:

1) The Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be solved by force unless the Arabs can achieve military and technical superiority over Israel and whoever else might be backing her. This is 2006, not 1967 or 1973. Even if the Arab armies could achieve mere strategic parity, through a combination of technical capabilities and sheer numbers, they would still need to learn how NOT to use force and how to shape superpower policies in the region, build a degree of trust with Israel and negotiate workable and fair solutions. The alternative would be mutual destruction.

2) Whenever the Palestinians resist the Israeli occupation and mistreatment, by violent means, Israel ticks off one more box in her relentless advance towards her national goals. When Palestinians target civilians, the formidable Israeli world-wide propaganda machine wins more hearts and minds. Israeli strategists seize on the opportunity to further widen the security cordons around their illegal settlements and the entire State of Israel. They become even more determined to hold on to occupied lands, suck in more fanatical Jewish immigrants and build more settlements.

3) The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and the democratically elected political wing of Hamas want to break the cycle of violence in Palestine (read this for example). They want to protect the lives of Palestinian people and find better ways of dealing with the Israeli occupation. No one is giving them a chance and some regimes, including Israel, Syria and Iran are actively destroying such chances. The oil-exporting and aid-dependent Arab rulers are ignoring them.

4) Young Palestinian men who have been radicalised by the brutal loss of their loved ones, or humiliated in Israeli jails or by appalling social conditions, become easy targets for political extremists, particularly the Jihady type. The Syrian and Iranian rulers use them and the Hizbullah militias in Lebanon as dispensable human fodder in their brinkmanship games with Washington. They know that the usual disproportionate Israeli retaliation (resulting in the senseless killing of innocent civilians and destruction of economic assets) will cause public outcries in the civilised world and encourage Washington and Israel to stop short of destroying their regimes or at least take some of the pressure off. They can always rally some of the people around them, claim victory when the firing stops and tighten their grip on power afterwards. The result is stalemate and effective international complicity with the status quo.

Arab rulers are shaken and fearful about current clashes spiraling out of control and engulfing their own countries and regimes. They still prefer complicity with such games to helping the democratically-elected Hamas government to stabilise and develop the Palestinian territories and their own populations to improve their lives through freedom of expression, religious tolerance, proper education and better employment opportunities. Empowered and enlightened masses are too much of a threat to their rule.

In Syria's case, her masters like to play both Samson and Delilah. Delilah betrays the people and Samson brings down the temple onto everyone’s head.

The headless torso of the little Palestinian girl says it all: stop the cycle of violence.

Here's a related post.
Amarji - A Heretic's Blog: Prelude to War!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Can an Illiterate or an Islamic Fundamentalist cast a vote?

My countrymen and women are tired of American politicians and Syrian intellectuals ramming the word democracy down their throats.

They are sick of hearing the word. Suspicion of American motives runs deep and they cannot imagine intellectuals delivering anything but hot air.

Deep down in the Arab and Islamic psyche, you find admiration for power and powerful rulers. It comes from family tradition, culture and religion. Fathers, and tribe elders, personified power and benevolence and thus commanded respect and obedience. The Quran reinforced this tradition. However, rulers enjoying absolute power, especially in the early history of Islam, were wise enough to consult with their subjects over major decisions and listened to their grievances through a consultative council (Majlis Al Shura).

Throughout their history, Arabs have rebelled against greed and injustice rather than absolute power.

Modern day Arab rulers understand this basic popular psychology. It is not clear that Saddam Hussein ever did. He was seen as greedy and unjust, consequently few shed tears when he was toppled. Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, who also enjoyed absolute power, was seen as benevolent, wise and just. Millions came out to mourn his death rather than celebrate it.

The concept of democracy as practiced in Greece and Rome departed the Levant when Islam arrived with a different governance model, which seemed to work well for centuries. A modern style of democracy returned to the Levant at the turn of the 20th Century. The Syrians carried it back! (Ask Sami Moubayed how and why}.

Can Arabs go on living under their traditional model of governance, that of the all powerful but benevolent ruler? Yes they can, if they are a homogenous society and have plenty of money to go round, as in the UAE.

Can Arabs in Syria live under such a model? No they can not. Syria is a rich tapestry of cultures and religions. Syrians are generally more at ease with liberal values and the country has to earn a living by growing things and making things that the world wants, against fierce competition. So people need to be free and creative and organized to survive. Syria experimented with democracy in the 1940s and 1950s but the country was young and clumsy. That was then. And we are here now. The world is very different and many Syrians can speak a foreign language, send an e-mail, dance to the latest techno beat, revel in classical Arab poetry and read the Quran or Bible before going to bed at night. They feel at home in Montreal, Los Angeles or Tartous because there are 15 million Syrian expatriates around the world acting as cultural bridges to their folk back home.

Can a Syrian farmer who doesn’t read or write vote? You bet he can. He has been forced to do so by a Baath party chief for 40 years! Given a choice, he may vote for his next door neighbour whom he thinks is honest enough, listens to others and acts in his community's best interests. Hundreds of millions of illiterate people in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and African countries know exactly who to vote for and why. For sure, education makes for a more enlightened and productive society but it is not a prerequisite for humans to express their free will. The poorly educated and ill-informed can be deceived. But it is the patriotic responsibility of the more educated to maintain the integrity of the voting system and expose fraud, and for the state to punish the fraudsters.

Can an Islamic fundamentalist cast a vote? He will probably be the first to do so. Passion and faith can move mountains. He will want to maximize his chances of exercising power. The voting in of Hamas in Palestine is a classic expression of passion and faith but also frustration and disillusionment with the previous Palestinian administration and Israeli oppression. People need to vent their anger and express their political wishes directly and freely. Democracy is only a mechanism which allows them to do so peacefully. It is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The alternative is aggression and social conflict, the weakening of civil society and the economy and erosion of state power. No country in the world today can hope to flourish economically or culturally without an enlightened, honest and fair system of government which protects the basic human rights of every citizen and guarantees him equal opportunities.

Should a low level of education, or the rising religious fundamentalism in Syria be used as reasons for delaying the transition to a more representative and open system of government?

I leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusion.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Secularism Is Not Anti Religion

Ammar, a Syrian writer, has just posted a good article on his blog entitled "The Struggle for Syria’s Body & Soul!" In it, he asks if liberals can impose their secular and democratic values on the rest of the population. Here is an extract from my comment.

Philip I said..

Democracy is only a mechanism for people to participate in decisions that affect their lives. If the mechanism is sound and fair, Islamic extremism will be at the fringe rather than heart of society. The fringe should enjoy its freedom but cannot be allowed impose its will on the majority nor should the majority be allowed to choke off minority interests. All of this must be inshrined in the laws of the land and backed up by the full power of the state. Turkey is a case in point and I agree there were special factors that allowed it to preseve the integrity of its political system more easily than otherwise would have been the case.

Secularism is not anti religion per se. It ensures that no one ethnic or religeous group dominates, provokes or undermines the rights of other groups. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religeous country like Syria, it is an absolute must. However, you have to believe in diversity (as a philosophical, economic and moral issue) in the first place, otherwise you will be inclined to drive the minorities underground or out of the country. A Syria devoid of its rich cultutral diversity would not be the kind of Syria that I would wish to belong to.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Syrian Constitution - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Syrian Constitution was introduced, at gunpoint, in 1973. It should be re-examined against the standards of universal human rights, secularism and consensus politics. Readers who do not believe these to be the appropriate standards for the 19 million Syrian people to aspire to, need not stop here. Otherwise, conmments are invited and appreciated.

The 156 Articles of the Constitution, together with the Preamble, are here.

The following is a useful and balanced summary by the US Department of State. My (brief) comments follow.

"Despite the existence of some institutions of democratic government in Syria, the political system places virtually absolute authority in the hands of the President. Former President Hafiz Al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Al-Asad's death, the Parliament amended the Constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 years old, which allowed his son Bashar Al-Asad legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'th party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar was elected by referendum in which he ran unopposed and received 97.29 percent of the vote. Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, internal politics, and the economy are made by the President, with counsel from his ministers, high-ranking members of the ruling Ba'th Party, and a relatively small circle of security advisers. Although the Parliament is elected every 4 years, the Ba'th Party is ensured a majority. The Parliament may not initiate laws but only assesses and at times modifies those proposed by the executive branch. In general all three branches of government are influenced to varying degrees by leaders of the Ba'th Party.

The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party with leadership functions in the state and society and provides broad powers to the president. The president, approved by referendum for a 7-year term, also is secretary general of the Ba'ath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. The president has the right to appoint ministers, to declare war and states of emergency, to issue laws (which, except in the case of emergency, require ratification by the People's Council), to declare amnesty, to amend the constitution, and to appoint civil servants and military personnel.

Along with the National Progressive Front, the president decides issues of war and peace and approves the state's 5-year economic plans. The National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic policies are debated and the country's political orientation is determined. However, because of Ba'ath Party dominance, the National Progressive Front has traditionally exercised little independent power.

The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the president be Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. Islamic jurisprudence, however, is required to be the main source of legislation.

Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces, one of which is Damascus. Each province is headed by a governor, whose appointment is proposed by the minister of the interior, approved by the cabinet and announced by executive decree. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council."

Philip I's Comments:

1. Inclusion of Point 4 in the Preamble, which reads: "Freedom is a sacred right and popular democracy is the ideal formulation which insures for the citizen the exercise of his freedom which makes him a dignified human being capable of giving and building, defending the homeland in which he lives, and making sacrifices for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. The homeland's freedom can only be preserved by its free citizens. The citizen's freedom can be completed only by his economic and social liberation"
2. Representation is based on secular principles rather than the religeous or ethnic make up of the country
3. Other political groups have a voice in parliament (two shades of grey are better than one!)

1. The religion of the president is specified
2. The president's 7-year term is too long given his colossal executive powers and unlimited extensions (he can be president for life)

1. Virtually the entire Constitution contradicts Point 4 of the Preamble
2. The executive and emergency powers of the president amount to absolute and guaranteed dictatorship (absolute power corrupts absolutely).
3. Baath party's guaranteed supremacy ensures that Syria remains stuck in a time warp
4. Parliament is practically a rubber stamp for the president and Baath party. This means the executive branch rules the legislative and corrupts the judicial branches of the state, thus undermining democracy and promoting nepotism

Further comment: This Constituion, which was forced upon the population by the military coup leader, Hafez Al Assad, in 1973 continues to provide a facade of legitimacy to the Syrian regime. But it is not the most effective instrument of power in the hands of government. A complex and brutal network of security and intelligence organisations, controlled directly by the Assad clan and their close associates, permeates the regular army, the police force, every central and regional state organ, public sector organisations, the media, worker associations, universities, mosques, churches, post and telecommunications services, hotels, tour operators and transport companies! Alongside the Baath party apparatus, worker or professional associations provide another instrument of control. Membership is mandatory and both the members and the leadership are carefully vetted. Access to state employment is also carefully filtered and youth organisations are indoctrinated. The regime has become one of the world's foremost experts in population control. Its 30-year experience has been greatly enriched by its once considerable influence over Lebanese government institutions and militias. Its blatent attempt to manipulate the Lebanese Constitution has eventually led to its forced withdrawal from Lebanon.

Peaceful Syrian opposition movements may be overwhelmed by the cancerous nature of this regime. However, they must remain focused and resolute. They should state their aspirations clearly, in terms of constitutional change and constitutional safeguards. They need to work patiently with partiotic Syrians, at home and abroad, and the international community, to exert continuous pressure on the regime. They must reach a broad concensus over the key political and economic reforms then articulate them to the nation. The regime, under constant pressure, has a clear choice between a peaceful and enlightened retreat (starting with the release of the peaceful prisoners of conscience and restoration of freedom of expression) or a violent end through implosion.

the Road to Democracy

Alex is a regular blogger on He likes to interrogate the minds of his fellow bloggers. Yesterday he asked, how do we achieve democracy in Syria? What a good, straightforward question! Why didn't anyone think of it before? It is interesting how much you reveal about yourself in trying to answer such a question in a couple of paragraphs.

Rising to the bait, I offered some thoughts. Alex hardly ever provides asnwers to his own questions. I had a feeling he would follow up with more questions. I cannot reproduce the questions faithfully here because the website server seems to be down today. However, the reader will get the gist of them from the answers:

At Thursday, July 06, 2006, Philip I said...


As always, you ask BIG, direct and pertinent questions.

If you want to work out the best way of getting from A to B, you have to know where B is.

B is a new constitution.

Not only does the current constitution stifle the country's development but even the good parts have been ignored, twisted, or blatently breached. So if you can put in place a better constitution in the future, you'd better make sure that it is well protected from such abuse.

I can think of some wholesale changes to the constitution but the two most important ones are, to my mind:

(1) the Baath party should not assume a "leading role" in society by force of law, as if the rest of society are ignorant sheep (Article 8), and

(2) the president should not have executive powers and be allowed to develop a personality cult.

I have explained my reasoning on these two points in an answer to one of your previous questions (see the final comment on

The road to a new constitution can be paved with roses or blood. The choice depends on whether the exisiting regime is capable of cleaning up its act, adapting quickly to the new realities, and gracefully acknowledging the right of others to contribute equally to policy making and decison making.

Look for revolutionaries to give you a better answer at gun point.

Alex then asked if it was feasible to agree, peacefully, a new constitution with so many ethnic and religeous minorities in Syria

Philip I said...


The clear answer to Syria's mosaic of religions and cultures is ABSOLUTE SECULARISM.

The good thing about the present constitution is that it says nothing about representation along ethnic or religeous lines.

The bad thing is that it guarantees majority representation for a special breed of politicians (the Baathists) and it gives wide dictatorial powers to one individual (because that individual happens to have seized power at gunpoint). Hafez Assad did not even want to specify the religion of the president as Alawite Muslim (that would have been absurd since he represented a religeous minority). A clause was inserted specifiying the president to be a Muslim in order to appease the majority Sunni Muslims (in the short-term) and ensure the loyalty of senior army officers.

He then cleverly turned the tables on them by systematically ensuring that his clan controlled all channels to state power. He did this by liquidating most of his opponents and building a pervasive security and intelligence superstructure answerable only to him. The results of this incredible concentration of power are widespread corruption, a rapid degeneration of state institutions, including the regular army, and the crumbling of the legal foundation of the state.

In Turkey, the all-powerful army has, for decades, jealously guarded the secular constitution and the integrity of state institutions. So much so that Turkey, since Ataturk, has developed into a major industrial and military power in the Middle East and Central Asia, and in 10-years time, it will bring the European Union to our northern borders.

No country or political system is perfect but we have a great deal to learn from Turkey and its brand of secularism. If we have to have strategic alliances, we would be well advised to focus on Turkey rather than Iran (please everyone do not digress into a fruitless debate about Iskandaron because mutual trust means a free movement of people, capital and goods and services across borders. Also please do not talk about Ottoman imperialism because we will be dealing with EU imperialism, if there is such a thing). Besides, we'd better remember where our water flows from.

Another blogger, George Ajjan, suggested that patriotic critics should work to develop democracy from the bottom up, starting at the local level:

George Ajjan - I agree with your positive thinking but there is no real incentive for good people to put their necks on the line. The state and its regions have been carved up as economic and political fiefdoms among the ruling elite and their families. Local democracy will be allowed to flourish only as a talking shop (basically to allow people to let off some steam). If, in your honest debate, you cross "red lines" drawn in the sand by your regional lanlord you soon find yourself behind bars.

I pray for two scenarios: either the ruling elite will come to their senses or decent, patriotic and secular elements in the regular army will come together and eventually eliminate them.

I do not have faith in either possibility and instead, I predict an implosion of the regime under its own weight, leading to chaos and a bloody military coup with unpredictable outcomes. If history teaches us anything, it is that there will be a long period of upheaval after a despotic regime has come to a violent end (just like Iraq today). Thereafter, it would take years for society to settle its differences and grievances before they set about repairing the damage to the country. So, another lost generation on top of the previous two!