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A Somber Ramadan in Syria

 

In early October, one billion plus Muslims around the world began abstaining from food, drink, tobacco and intercourse from dawn until sunset to observe Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. I experienced the uplifting spirit of Ramadan in Syria last year. I recall that wonderful shared moment when Muslim families of all classes broke their fast just at sunset. Most would finish the evening by entering packed mosques for special prayers (tarawih). During these 30 days, water rivals ambrosia’s revitalizing taste; the bite of sweet sun-kissed dates, never more blissful.

This occurred before the Valentine’s Day assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which led to the escalated US campaign to try to destabilize President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Last October, friends in Damascus felt optimistic that President George W. Bush would lose his re-election bid. One even hoped that a triumphant Kerry would offer the region “some relief from another US-manufactured war and open the way to improved US-Syrian relations.”

When the radio announced Bush’s victory, an antiques store owner in old Damascus said, “Hurry back and visit us soon. We might not be around, if Bush has his way.”

He was only half joking. This year, it’s going to be a tough Ramadan in Damascus-and in Baghdad, Kabul, Teheran and other major Muslim cities. Palestinians-Muslim and non-Muslim-living in decaying camps throughout the Middle East, including approximately 500,000 in Syria, will watch yet another Ramadan go by as refugees, rather than live in their own land.

Neither people suffering nor hard facts seem to matter to the Bushies. The UN Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis will make a full report to the UN Security Council in late October. Indeed, Washington remains confident that Mehlis will implicate high-ranking officials in Damascus for Hariri’s murder. One of those whom Washington was sure Mehlis would name as a conspirator removed himself from the plot. On October 12, Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kennan committed suicide in his Damascus office. UN investigators had questioned this prominent Alawite, who had headed Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon from 1982-2002. How will his violent departure affect the overall UN probe and the stability of President Assad’s government? Speculation abounds over what new punitive measures the US will take against an already-sanctioned Syria-no matter what Mehlis’ report says.

The Bush Administration retains its missionary impulse-at least rhetorically-to restructure the Middle East, despite insuperable difficulties encountered by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Nature’s devastating assault on the Gulf Coast. Bush himself seems oblivious to the fact that under the lofty banner of spreading freedom and democracy and fighting terrorism, he has propagated the two-headed hydra of global insecurity and militarism. His one liners and the behavior of US troops have not won many hearts and minds among war-weary Muslims and Arabs alike.

Bush confidante and Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes danced her Texas two-step into Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey in late September on a five-day tour aimed at repairing the US image in the Muslim world. But her clichés couldn’t extinguish palpable outrage over the direction of US policy. Even her carefully pre-selected audiences were left unconvinced by Hughes’ onion-skin thin analysis of the Middle East’s problems: “To preserve the peace, sometimes my country believes war is necessary.”

During a meeting in Istanbul, Kurdish activist Fatma Nevin Vargun reminded Hughes, “War makes the rights of women completely erased, and poverty comes after war-and women pay the price” (Washington Post, September 29, 2005).

On September 30, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the Bush Administration’s use of military force to advance democracy as “the only guarantee of true stability and lasting security.” Noticeably absent from her remarks about “true stability” were details on the United States’ plans toward achieving economic security. Rice also did not address the US commitment to halve global poverty by 2015. Indeed, the 2005 UN Human Development Report referred to the United States’ “overdeveloped military strategy and underdeveloped strategy for human security” (Independent, September 8, 2005). “From the perspective of a broader conception of human security,” stated the Report, “there is a danger that the war on terrorism could sideline the struggle against poverty, health epidemics and other challenges, drawing scarce financial resources away from the causes of insecurity” (p. 169).

The media has aided and abetted Bush’s ongoing campaign against Syria (medical term: Obsessive Compulsive Syria Bashing Disorder, OCSBD) by supplying vapid headlines like “Syria Growing More Isolated” and “US Awaits ‘Change of Behavior’ Damascus.” The stories and headlines that scream to be written should focus on the findings of the Human Development Report, which provides a framework for comprehending how imperialism promotes insecurity in the Middle East. Washington threatens rather than engages with Syria. After all, that regime represents an easy to kick-around “low-hanging fruit” of 18 million people, with an arsenal of zero nuclear weapons and estimated 20% unemployment rate.

The US seems unconcerned about its own real security and deeply interested in following a bad script. Predictably, in response to Washington’s unremitting allegations against Damascus, the Syrian government ceased security and intelligence cooperation with the United States. But this move in late May 2005 has yet to trigger a much needed U-turn in US-Syria policy.

Quite the opposite! On September 12, US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad warned Syria with implicit bellicosity, “All options are on the table.” This dollhouse-sized table, perhaps constructed by Bechtel or one of its subsidiaries, holds one option-the undiplomatic one, which encompasses increased trade sanctions, severance of diplomatic relations and military action.

Rice and other US officials have explained repeatedly that the United States isn’t set on “regime change” in Syria as it was in Iraq, but only on “changing the regime’s behavior.” Her statement echoed a previous euphonious phrase, “anticipatory self-defense,” which the Administration used to tone down “pre-emptive war,” which it waged against Iraq. Rather than ask, how the US can again justify intervening in another sovereign nation’s affairs, particularly when Syria has not attacked or threatened it, the media has maintained a deafening silence that has enabled Bush’s foggy case against Syria to go unchallenged.

Indeed, the enabling and poorly informed TV and print punditry have driven the Syrian “discussion” for the past year. Their unfounded assumptions are: Syria is a pariah nation that ordered Hariri’s murder had has contributed to the sectarian violence in Iraq; Washington has exhausted all diplomatic remedies to reach a consensus between the US and Syria over Lebanon and Iraq, thus necessitating tougher action against Damascus.

On the October 3 edition of Fox TV’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” the hopelessly angry Bill O’Reilly, aping Pat Robertson on Hugo Chavez, suggested threatening Bashar al-Assad’s life in order to promote regional security in the Middle East: “We could take out his life, and we should take his life if he doesn’t help us out.”

Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot offered an equally puerile approach to dealing with Syria: “Bombing strikes, commando raids and increased support for anti-Assad dissidents may help to concentrate the mind of the world’s sole surviving Baathist strongman” (Black Hills Pioneer, September 29, 2005). When Boot referred to dissidents, did he have in mind Washington D.C.-based Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria that has no popular support in Damascus, or Bashar’s equally unpopular uncle Rifaat, who was exiled in 1983 after a failed attempt at toppling his brother Hafez from power?

On October 6, President Bush told the National Endowment for Democracy that Syria and Iran had “a long history of collaboration with terrorists.” Ironically, he also provided “disobedient” Presidents, not only Assad, but Ahmadinejad, Castro and Chavez, another opportunity to pounce on Bush’s double standard on terrorism. “The United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor them, because they’re equally as guilty of murder.”

But Bush had made a distinction. His Administration continued to shield from prosecution the “Osama bin Laden of Latin America,” CIA-trained anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. In 1976, Posada orchestrated the bombing of a Cuban jetliner carrying passengers from Venezuela, which killed 73 people. A Texas Immigration Judge on September 27 ruled out deporting Posada to Venezuela, on the grounds that he could face torture. The State Department, however, did not include Venezuela on its list of nations that routinely practice torture.

Tough talk and inconsistent behavior exacerbate the ongoing dispute between Syria and the US. Notably absent from the selective reporting and opinion pieces is the intelligence that Syria provided to Washington in 2002 that saved American lives by preventing a terrorist attack on the US Fleet in Bahrain.

Instead, the journalists overlook Syria’s positive moves and “evaluate” the ongoing reform process in that country. Since assuming power in 2000, Assad has pledged a commitment to overseeing wide-spread procedural and substantive reforms, but their pace and the quality of the over 1,200 laws and legislative decrees issued during the past five years, including at the June 10th Ba’ath Party Conference (some welcomed developments included the creation of a multiparty law-although it still bans ethnic and religious parties-and the sacking of Old Guard members in one day) remain a matter of concern among activists, Ba’athist reformers and the general public. Whether or not Bush decides to apply more sanctions to completely isolate Syria, using a “Libya style option” or launch military strikes (an idea Rice opposed at a meeting with senior US officials in early October), it will have an effect on Syria’s internal politics-and the Syrian people.

On July 21, 2005, I asked Syrian political analyst Dr. Sami Moubayed in Damascus to evaluate the current debate in Washington, divided between those who contend only sanctions, isolation and/or the threat of force will push Syria to “change its behavior,” versus a smaller contingent led by former National Security staffer Flynt Leverett, who advocate conditional engagement (using carrots and sticks). “The Americans don’t have a lot of credibility in Syria after the invasion of Iraq,” Moubayed replied. “There are those among the elite, writers and activists who have said that they don’t mind some pressure from the US if it helps accelerate reforms. However, Washington missed a golden opportunity: it responded with silence when members of the Al-Atassi Forum [a democratic discussion group] were arrested [on May 24, 2005; Syrian authorities released eight members six days later, then shut down the Forum in early August], which was a slap in the face to those who believed the US was committed to promoting human rights in Syria.”

The US media also ignored last October’s news that EU and Syrian negotiators had initialed the coveted Association Agreement. This accord generated hope among the country’s reformers and civil society activists, who view it as an effective pressure tool to stimulate more progress in political and economic-related reforms. Indeed, the Agreement gives Damascus greater access to EU markets in exchange for progress on human rights and controlling WMDs. Since the ongoing probe into Hariri’s killing, however, the Bush Administration successfully lobbied the EU to hold off on ratifying the trade pact. One European diplomat revealed that the Americans emphasized not wanting “any positive gestures” made towards Syria (Reuters, June 5, 2005).

For example, on April 25, 2005, Syria was exonerated by weapons inspector Charles Duelfer’s Iraq Survey Group. In its final report, analysts found “no senior policy, program, or intelligence officials who admitted any direct knowledge” that Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMDs were moved to Syria (Dana Priest, Washington Post, April 26, 2005).

The next day, the New York Times reported that as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton had “exaggerated” threats about “Syrian efforts to acquire unconventional weapons,” according to former intelligence officers (April 26, 2005). Yet, Members of Congress, which sanctioned Syria for those charges under the November 2003 Syria Accountability Act, remained dramatically silent, as they and the media have concerning Syria’s anti-terrorist efforts. On April 30, 2003, the very State Department that placed Syria on the “terrorist list” stated: “The Government of Syria has cooperated significantly with the United States and other foreign governments against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations and individuals” (“Patterns of Global Terrorism” Report).

Syrians have discovered that with Washington, no good deed goes unpunished. Hariri’s killing provoked international pressure and hastened Syria’s completed withdrawal from Lebanon on April 26, as Washington demanded and the UN verified. Then, on May 5, 2005, President Bush rewarded Syria by renewing the one-year old trade sanctions against Damascus, banning US exports to Syria, Syrian flights from entering or leaving U.S. territory and freezing relations with the Commercial Bank of Syria. The media didn’t evaluate the efficacy of the SAA or question the legitimacy of re-sanctioning Syria, even after the regime had been officially absolved of the same charges for which it was to be held accountable: supporting the Iraqi insurgency, hiding Iraqi WMDs and occupying Lebanon.

Despite the facts, US officials still blame Syria for its ongoing mess in Iraq. The US claims that Damascus has allowed foreign fighters to infiltrate into Iraq by not controlling its side of the porous, 376-mile border. In the past two years, however, Syria has increased the number of border troops from a few 100 to 10,000 and captured 1,500 individuals trying to cross the border. “The heart of the insurgency is Iraqi,” according to Chatham House Researcher James Denselow. He cited the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimate that “there are only 550 Syrian fighters in an insurgency over 30,000 strong” (“The Case for Border Co-operation,” September 24, 2005, “Syria Comment”).

Denselow also noted, “At a recent conference in Jordan concerning Iraqi border security, Donald Rumsfeld personally vetoed the attendance of the Syrian delegation. At a tactical level, there is a complete absence of communication between the Syrian and US/Iraqi border patrol.” In an October 7 Al Hayat interview, President Assad reiterated his country’s request to close its border with Iraq to militants. “They [Americans] have no patrols at the border, not a single American or Iraqi on their side of the borderWe cannot control the border from one side.”

US accusations have placed Assad on the defensive. But this should not prevent reporters from asking: who benefits the most from the present circumstances? One month after the US invaded Iraq, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon on April 28, 2003 called for “regime change” to follow in Iran and Syria by using economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and “psychological pressure.” The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime was “not enough,” he said. “We still have great threats of that magnitude coming from Syria, coming from Iran” (Reuters, April 28, 2003). Does all of this sound familiar?

Well before the Iraqi invasion, neo-cons Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser had authored the 1996 report, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” It recommended that Israel “shape its strategic environmentby weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.” Demonstrating its commitment to this policy script, White House officials discussed the prospect of regime change in Syria with their Israeli counterparts, reported the October 4 Ha’aretz, and even asked who they thought could replace the secular Assad without provoking any regional instability.

Concurrently, Israeli Defense Minister Shaoul Mofaz took advantage of Syria’s weakened condition when he declared on September 27 that the occupied Syrian Golan Heights “will remain at the hands of Israel forever.” Neither the media nor US officials googled or read him a line from UN Security Council Resolution 497 (1981), which called Israel’s jurisdiction in the Golan Heights “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Syria needs stability. Although the Ba’ath Party has provided some stability, it has not dealt adequately with the rising indices of poverty and unemployment. US interests would benefit from working with Syria on realistic security objectives for the region, like seeing a stable Iraq, combating terrorism, creating a nuclear-weapons-free zone and negotiating a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Instead, the Bush Administration opts for adhering to an unconstructive anti-Syria policy endorsed by Israel and its neo-con allies in Washington.

What an environment to seek spiritual renewal during Ramadan! Bashar al-Assad might seize this bleak moment to step outside from his presidential residence and talk to supportive and critical Syrians alike on the streets-and outside mosques and churches. Such behavior could show them he is listening to their concerns, assure the rest of the world that has questioned his power that he is an active force and that he will assist with bringing Hariri’s killers to justice.

A much-needed display of leadership would help Syria emerge from this challenging time even more committed to its path of internal reform and to advancing security in the Middle East. If nothing else, Syrians could then look forward to celebrating many more Ramadans as citizens of a sovereign nation.

FARRAH HASSEN was the Associate Producer of the film, “Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” with Saul Landau. She is an IPS Seymour Melman Fellow for 2005. She can be reached at: FHuisClos1944@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLARIFICATION

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH

We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005

 

More articles by:

Farrah Hassen is a Syrian-American writer and filmmaker based in Washington DC.

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