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!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Rising Heat of Debate

These are my three commentaries on posts which have appeared on the Syria Comment website recently.

Comment on an article in The Economist, Jun 29th 2006, CAIRO (reproduced on Syria Comment)


July 06, 2006, Philip I said...

It is a highly depressing picture, but only to those who are old enough and have experienced living in a Western-style democracy.

Politics is about the interplay of culture, philosophy and economics. Arab societies are very young and generally impoverished (despite the oil wealth). Compared with Western and some Far Eastern nations, they are philosophically immature and culturally poor. The educational system and the way religion is taught and practised do not encourage free thinking and open debate and, for centuries, the only political model is oppression and the personality cult.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for optimism. Arab youth are angry. Some may vent their anger through political Islam but the majority is quietly looking for a way out. Thanks to satellite TV, the Internet, mobile phones and cheaper travel, they can at least see alternatives or possible compromises. They are communicating more energetically with the rest of world and sharpening their language and their minds in the process. Some are already protesting more loudly, both at home and in the cyber world. Soon they will want to organise themselves politically and begin to force change, hopefully for the better.

Political Islam is as opportunistic as fundamental Christianity. Both are blinkered and prey on the disaffected youth. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main proponents and financiers of political Islam while the Vatican, US pressure groups and Israel fund uncompromising Christian and Jewish disciples to varying degrees and to different political ends.

Syria is almost unique in the Arab world for its history of cultural and religeous openness and tolerance. But these fine attributes, which make for a better and more progressive society, are fast evaporating. They are being offered as fresh meat to Iran in exchange for political protection, while Al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood stand ready to pick the bones. But the vast majority of Syria's youth is far too intelligent and moderate to allow itself to be indoctrinated by Imams, Bishops or, for that matter, hypocritical Baathists.

At Tuesday, July 04, 2006, Metaz K. M. Aldendeshe, said...


At Tuesday, July 04, 2006, Philip I said...

You defend the regime so passionately. Fine. Can you elighten us with answers to these puzzling questions?

1) Where exactly was the Syrian airforce when the Israeli planes flew at low altitude over the summer palace north of Lattakia? (please don't mention the fireworks)

2) What's happend to the billions of US dollars that have supposedly been spent on the military since 1973 (33 years of spending our money without protecting us from the enemy!)

Anyone can be an ultra-nationalist. Talk is cheap.

Anyone can be stubborn and rejectionist and so can a mule.

Assad's officers do not have time to fight (too busy spending our stolen wealth), do not know how to fight (out of practice for 33 years) and certainly don't want to fight (there are more intelligence officers than army officers and they are all spying on each other). All they have learned, since joining the army, 33 yeas ago, is to pick soft targets in Lebanon. Now they are running to the Iranians for protection against the big bad wolf.

Neither the regime nor the Baath party can claim to have any real principles or honour left in their bones. Syria and its people have never been so poorly represented by their government, so weak and so humiliated.

At Tuesday, July 04, 2006, Metaz K. M. Aldendeshe said...
(This follow up post has been removed by the blog administrator)

At Tuesday, July 04, 2006, Philip I, said...

Metaz K. M. Aldendeshe, I would say this:

Let other countries deal with their own rulers. You can swear and curse until you are blue in the face. But you still have no right to impose your view of the world on them. They are INDEPENDENT countries.

Shared Arab identity, shared Islam, shared history, shared language....all fine. They still owe you and me NOTHING. You can blame them for not coming forward to help you or the poor Palestinians, you can blame imperialism and Zionism for creating artificial barriers and borders between the Arabs until you are blue in the face. The other Arab countries still owe you and me NOTHING.

Once you accept this reality and this logic you begin to focus on putting your own house in order first. The Syrian government has neglected its home and abused its own family members for 30 years. The Assads hijacked the Baath party and corrupted it. Together they have trampled on the middle class and driven many talented Syrians out of the country. And the idiots are still doing it today.

The Syrian consitution has to change, or the country will never move forward. The Baath party must have the same legal status as any other political group. Its legitimacy must stem from honest votes rather than an unfair clause in the constitution, the army and state of emergency powers.

The president should not have executive powers and be allowed to think of himself as the centre of universe and develop a personality cult. Personality worship and fear of the ruler have retarded Arabs and Muslims for centuries.

Until policy making and decison making becomes more democratic (relying on collective wisdom rather than a handful of self-appointed elite), the country will never develop, mature and strengthen. It will lurch from crisis to crisis, become an easy target for Zionists and Neocons and damage relations with other decent countries (like Denmark!). The alliance with Iran is unnecessary and nothing to be proud of. It comes at the expense of cultural and religeous diversity in Syria and is a sign of weakness, which is SELF-INDUCED.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Gaza by candlelight

Imagine having to live in a tin hut in stifling temperatures of 45 degrees or more without a fan or a fridge for weeks on end. Your meat stinks and your father's medicines have gone off. You sweat like a pig and lose your temper when a child screams for an ice cream.

You have not had a proper job for years, but it can't all be bad. With no light or TV at night, romance can creep back into your life. In my case, only a thin curtain separates me and my wife from my elderly parents and the children. So I have to pick my moment.

Blowing out the candles at night has become something of a routine. Starlit Gaza nights are a time for reflection, so I do it with a sense of anticipation and excitement.

Who am I? Why was I born in this tortured land? Will my children survive disease, poverty and martydom? I fear for them, so should I surrender my body and soul to the Israelis? Who needs a state when there is no hope? I hear they pay well for spies.

Some of our hotheads are holding a young Israeli soldier. Mr Olmert is blowing our power stations and bridges to smitherines and beating the shit out of our men, women and children. The EU spokeswoman is urging restraint on "all sides" while holding back aid.

Perhaps suicide bombs ARE the answer. The ultimate human sacrifice. But this is just like blowing out candles and I am talking about beautiful, innocent, slender, brown-eyed Palestinian candles.

I have a brilliant idea. Why don't we just give up any claim to Palestinian lands. We could all live in the LAND OF ISRAEL. Mr Olmert will have no reason to pick a fight with us. Everyone knows Israel is a democratic nation. So we will be given 100% equal rights straight away. Just imagine, me and Mr Olmert, equal in the LAND OF ISRAEL. My children will grow up in peace with Israeli children and together they will thrive.

The morning after. More bombs fall onto our heads and the young Israeli soldier is murdered in retaliation. We Palestinians are like ants. We can have a nasty bite but they can spray us with fire and poison, stamp on us with their big army boots and destroy our nests. Perhaps we are not really human. We breed so someone else can enjoy kicking our nests into the ground and squashing our young. Next year, inshallah, will be better. You know, I keep saying to myself, we Arabs, should have listened to Habib Bourguiba in 1965. We just never learn.