Syria: Where massacre is a family tradition

June 14, 2011

* Fouad Ajami: Only in Syria does your neighbor go to work in the morning and return 11 years later. Only in Syria does a child enter prison before entering school. Only in Syria does a man go to jail for 20 years without being charged and is then asked to write a letter thanking the authorities upon his release.

* Syria rides with the Iranian theocracy and provides it access to the Mediterranean. It is a patron of Hamas and Hizbullah, organizations that orchestrated wave after wave of attacks on Israeli civilians. Damascus made a mockery of Lebanon’s sovereignty, murdered its leaders at will. And still it managed to convince naive politicians in the West for decades that it was a potentially moderate government.

* President Bashar Assad and his younger brother Maher, commander of the Republican Guard, are determined to subdue this new rebellion as their father did in Hama – one murder at a time. In today’s world it’s harder to turn off the lights and keep tales of repression behind closed doors, but the Assads know no other way. Massacre is a family tradition.

* Tom Gross: Yet instead of reporting about Assad’s scorched earth policies which partially destroyed a region of Syria yesterday, the British publicly-funded, government-controlled BBC (the world’s largest news broadcaster) ran reports all morning today on its World Service radio slandering Israel, even though nothing of significance happened in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute yesterday. Meanwhile the BBC’s total silence about the daily killings by British and allied forces of Libyans, Afghans and others, continues.

* No surprise: Arab spring meets Arab silence from the Arab League.

* Leading Arab-American group drops prominent Syrian-American musician from performing at its annual convention after he wants to sing a song that mentions the word “freedom”.

* Syria’s ally Hizbullah dominates the new Lebanese government formed yesterday. The new foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, is a former ambassador to Iran, which along with Syria is a major backer of Hizbullah.



1. “Fighters shoot protesters at a Palestinian camp in Syria” (By Isabel Kershner, NY Times, June 7, 2011)
2. “Arab-American group blocks musician over ‘freedom’ song” (By Ben Smith, Politico, June 8, 2011)
3. The banned song
4. “Syrian protesters turn on Iran and Hizbullah” (By Sarra Grira, France 24, June 6, 2011)
5. “Syria: Where massacre is a family tradition” (By Fouad Ajami, WSJ, June 13, 2011)
6. “Iran reportedly aiding Syrian crackdown” (By Joby Warrick, Wash. Post, May 27, 2011)
7. “Arab Spring meets Arab silence” (By Aline Sara, Now Lebanon, June 6, 2011)
8. “Hizbullah dominates new Lebanon government” (Agence France Presse, June 13, 2011)

I attach a number of news stories and comment pieces related to Syria, below.

-- Tom Gross


Among previous recent dispatches on Syria, please see:

* This article of mine, which was published in The National Post (Canada) and The Australian
* They couldn’t even muster a press statement (& The Syria Lobby)
* As Syria slaughters hundreds, its ambassador gets wedding invite denied to Blair and Brown

For videos from the Syrian uprising, please see:

* Carrying out acts of terror is nothing new for the Assad family
* Syrians burn Iranian and Russian Flags (Not Israeli and U.S. ones)


This story illustrates the complexities of the Mideast. (I sent it to some people on this list on the day it was published.) -- Tom

Fighters shoot protesters at a Palestinian camp in Syria
By Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
June 7, 2011

Gunmen from a pro-Syrian Palestinian organization shot and killed as many as 14 people during a protest at a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus on Monday, WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, reported on Tuesday.

According to WAFA and other reports, the fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is backed by Syria, clashed with mourners in the Yarmouk refugee camp after funerals for Palestinian protesters who were killed on Sunday at the border between Syria and the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

The shootings on Monday took place after mourners accused the organization of sacrificing Palestinian lives by encouraging protesters to demonstrate at the Golan Heights, Reuters reported. Reports also referred to divisions in the camp between those who support the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and those who sympathize with the Syrian opposition, which is seeking expanded democratic rights.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank on Tuesday condemned what it called the “crime” committed in the Yarmouk refugee camp by what it called “armed groups” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The leadership said in a statement published by the Palestinian news agency that the Popular Front’s fighters had fired live ammunition into crowds of young demonstrators at the camp.

On Tuesday, Syrian police and plainclothes security officers ringed the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in the Yarmouk camp and anger at the group ran high.

Witnesses said that mourners had marched to the headquarters on Monday after burying seven people killed in the border protest on Sunday. Mohamed Rashdan, 25, a shopkeeper who lives nearby, said the crowd began to throw stones at the organization’s headquarters. Then, he said, “the building guards began to shoot at us.”

“They were all Palestinians — no Syrian security men shot at us,” Mr. Rashdan said. “That made us so angry.”

Mr. Rashdan said he believed the demonstration at the border was organized to serve the interests of President Assad, and that the protest had nothing to do with seeking justice for Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrian residents of the Golan Heights.

He said that many camp residents blamed the Popular Front for organizing the border protest “to help Syria run away from its local crisis.”

“They got us involved in Syria’s local crisis,” Mr. Rashdan said, “and that is why we were so angry at the killing of our brothers and sons.” The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is led by Ahmed Jibril, has been bitterly at odds with the mainstream Palestinian organizations for decades and is defined as a terrorist organization by the United States.

Both Israel and the United States have suggested that the Syrian government orchestrated the confrontation at the border on Sunday, or at least did nothing to prevent it, to divert attention from its bloody crackdown on the antigovernment uprising in Syria.

A State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said in Washington, “It’s clear that such behavior will not distract international attention from the Syrian governments’ condemnable behavior on its own citizens.”

The Syrian government said that 23 Syrian and Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli fire as they tried to rush the border fence on Sunday. The Israeli military said that 10 of the protesters died after their firebombs set off landmines on the Syrian side of the border.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank hinted that it, too, viewed the Popular Front as having used the protests at the Golan Heights for its own political goals.

The leadership affirmed in its statement that the demand by the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants for a right of return to their former homes in what is now Israel “remained a sacred goal not to be exploited for any political purposes,” adding that the blood of those who were killed on Sunday at the border was not to be “exploited or traded for private interests.”



Arab-American group blocks musician over “freedom” song
By Ben Smith
Politico (a leading Washington website)
June 8, 2011

A leading Arab American group dropped a prominent Syrian-American musician from performing at their annual convention in a dispute over a freedom-tinged song that he was set to perform.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a longtime Washington civil rights group, repeatedly asked the German-born Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali to reconsider his piece choice, Jandali told POLITICO. When he refused, Jandali was told today that he couldn’t perform at this weekend’s event.

Jandali’s “Watani Ana: I am my Homeland” doesn’t specifically mention Syria or the broader Arab Spring uprisings, but is heavy on the themes of freedom and liberty. Jandali calls it a “humanitarian song.” But lyrics include “oh my homeland, when will I see you free” and “When the land is watered with the blood of martyrs and the brave/ And all the people shout: Freedom to mankind.”

Jandali himself declined to speculate why he wasn’t allowed to perform “Watani Ana,” and an official at the ADC, Nabil Mohamad, refused to explain its decision.

“Is is it the words? The scale of the music? Was the rhythm too slow? Did the melody maybe bother them?” Jandali asked POLITICO. “I really would love to hear their answer. It would have been a perfect song.”

“It doesn’t mention the word ‘Arab’ or ‘Syria’ or anything,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian song.”

However other observers speculated that the song’s implications might have troubled the Syrian government, which is in the midst of a bloody crackdown on its citizens, or its allies. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has defied international calls to end the crackdown and ordered security forces into the streets to quell unrest. He has also ratcheted up tensions with neighboring Israel, allowing Palestinian and Syrian protesters to approach the sealed Syrian-Israeli boarder. Twenty-three of those demonstrators were later killed by Israeli forces after they tried to rush the border.

“We are just saddened by the atrocities and the killing of innocent children,” Jandali, an American citizen who was born in Germany but raised in Syria, said.

The chairman of the ADC board, gynecologist Safa Rifka, is aligned with Syria’s ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha. In a blog post, Moustapha called Rifka one of his three “best friends” in Washington D.C. The ADC describes itself as the largest Arab-American grassroots advocacy group and vows to end “discrimination and bias against Arab Americans wherever it is practiced.”

“I have nothing to say on that,” said ADC Vice President Nabil Mohamad on charges that politics were the reason. The ADC cited logistical problems in canceling Jandali’s performance. “You should get the facts,” said Muhamad in a brief interview with POLITICO before declining to comment further.



A video of “I am my Homeland” (complete with English subtitles):



[I sent this note to some people last week – TG]

I have noted in various past dispatches that demonstrators in Syria have been burning the flags of Hezbollah and Iran, and pictures of their leaders (see, for example, the first video here from May 22.)

I am glad that some mainstream media are now reporting this. The example below is from the French state-funded English, French and Arabic language station, France 24.

Predictably, I haven’t seen any reports of this in media such as The New York Times and BBC.

The only addendum I would make to the piece below is where France 24 states that “Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general is a widely respected figure throughout the Middle East” one might add “Yes, but primarily in the imagination of certain Western journalists and academics”.

Incidentally, pictures of Nasrallah were also burned in Iran in the anti-government demonstrations of 2009.

-- Tom Gross


Syrian protesters turn on Iran and Hezbollah
By Sarra Grira
France 24
June 6, 2011

Syrian opposition protesters are not just calling for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad: they have recently begun directing their anger against his regional allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Our Observer says this is a new and unexpected turn of events.

Videos of recent protests in Syria show demonstrators chanting slogans against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, as well as the Hezbollah, an Islamist political party from Lebanon with a powerful armed wing. Even more surprising has been footage of protesters burning posters of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general and a widely respected figure throughout the Middle East.

Their anger is a result of Tehran’s and Hezbollah’s unwavering support for the Syrian government, even as it ruthlessly crushes its own people’s calls for more democracy. The last straw for Syrian protesters was a speech pronounced by Hassan Nasrallah on May 25, in which he assured Assad of his “everlasting friendship and support”.

The recent anti-Hezbollah protests have mainly taken place in the town of Douma, not far from the Syrian capital Damascus, and in Homs, Syria’s culture capital and third-largest city.

Video filmed in Douma, near Damascus, on May 28. The person setting fire to a poster of Nasrallah says: “Here is the answer of the people of Douma to Nasrallah’s speech!”

Nobody in Syria was actually surprised that Iran and Hezbollah would support the Syrian regime: we all know that those three power circles have traditionally been close. But Hassan Nasrallah’s public statement of support got protesters really angry, and new anti-Hezbollah slogans began making their way into demonstrations.

This is a new and striking phenomenon: up until now, Nasrallah was worshipped in the Arab world. He was seen as a hero of anti-Israeli resistance, especially after he freed South Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000.

Today, Nasrallah has chosen the Syrian regime over the Syrian people. His main argument is the Assad family’s firm anti-Israeli stance and support of Hezbollah as it was branded a terrorist organization by the West. What’s more, the regime accuses protesters of being traitors manipulated by Israel and foreign powers as a way of discrediting the protest movement. By pitching Bashar al-Assad as the defender of the Arab cause, Damascus ensured itself of Nasrallah’s support.

These renewed tensions risk turning into religious divergences between Shiites and Sunnis. Just because Hezbollah is a mainly Shiite movement doesn’t mean that these news slogans are directed against Syria’s Shiite minority (about 10% of the population). The government plays on Sunni-Shiite / Arab-Kurd difference to divide the population, but we have to remain united. I think protesters understand this: one of their main slogans is ‘all together, hand in hand!”



Syria: Where massacre is a family tradition
By Fouad Ajami
The Wall Street Journal
June 13, 2011

Pity the Syrians as they face the Assad regime’s tanks and artillery and snipers. Unlike in Libya, there is no Arab or international “mandate” to protect them. Grant Syria’s rulers their due: Their country rides with the Iranian theocracy and provides it access to the Mediterranean. It is a patron of Hamas and Hezbollah. And still they managed to sell the outside world on the legend of their moderation.

True, Damascus was at one time or another at odds with all its neighbors – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel – but it managed to remain in the good graces of the international community. It had made a mockery of Lebanon’s sovereignty, murdered its leaders at will. Yet for all the brutality and audacity of the Syrian reign of terror and plunder in Lebanon, the Syrians were able to convince powers beyond that their writ was still preferable to the chaos that would engulf Lebanon were they to leave.

In the same vein, Damascus was able to pull off an astonishing feat: Syria was at once the “frontline” state that had remained true to the struggle against Israel, and the country that kept the most tranquil border with the Jewish state. (As easily as Syria’s rulers kept the peace of that border, they were able to shatter it recently, sending Palestinian refugees to storm the border across the Golan Heights.)

It was the writer Daniel Pipes who rightly said that Syria’s leaders perennially wanted the “peace process” but not peace itself. Their modus operandi was thus: Keep the American envoys coming, hold out the promise of accommodation with Israel, tempt successive U.S. administrations with a grand bargain, while your proxies in Lebanon set ablaze the Lebanese-Israeli border and your capital houses Hamas and all the terrible Palestinian rejectionists.

Syria could have it both ways: ideological and rhetorical belligerence combined with unsentimental diplomacy and skullduggery. The Iranians wanted access to Lebanon and its border with Israel. The Syrians sold it to them at a price. They were unapologetic about it before other Arabs, but they kept alive the dream that they could be “peeled off” from Iran, that theirs was a modern, secular nation that looked with a jaundiced eye on the ways of theocracies.

Syria’s rulers were Alawites, schismatics, to the Sunni purists a heresy. Yet as America battled to put a new order in Iraq in place, Syria was the point of transit for Sunni jihadists from other Arab lands keen to make their way there to kill and be killed. The American project there was being bloodied, and this gave the Syrians a reprieve, for they feared they would be next if Washington looked beyond Iraq for other targets.

It was that sordid game that finally convinced George W. Bush that the Syrians had to pay a price for their duplicity. The American support for the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon then followed, and the Syrians made a hasty retreat. In time they would experience a seller’s remorse, and they would try to regain what they had given up under duress.

Barack Obama provided the Syrian dictatorship with a diplomatic lifeline. He was keen to “engage” Tehran and Damascus, he was sure that Syrian radicalism had been a response to the heavy hand of the Bush administration. An American ambassador was dispatched to Damascus, and an influential figure in the Democratic Party, Sen. John Kerry, made it his calling to argue that the young Syrian ruler was, at heart, a “reformer” eager to sever his relations with Iran and Hezbollah.

The Arab Spring upended all that. It arrived late in Syria, three months after it had made its way to Tunisia and Egypt, one month after Libya’s revolt. A group of young boys in the town of Deraa, near the border with Jordan, had committed the cardinal sin of scribbling antiregime graffiti. A brittle regime with a primitive personality cult and a deadly fault-line between its Alawite rulers and Sunni majority responded with heavy-handed official terror. The floodgates were thrown open, the Syrian people discovered within themselves new reservoirs of courage, and the rulers were hell-bent on frightening the population into their old state of submission.

Until the Arab Spring, nothing had stirred in Syria in nearly three decades. President Hafez al-Assad and his murderous younger brother Rifaat had made an example of Hama in 1982 when they stamped out a popular uprising by leveling much of the city and slaughtering thousands. Now, the circle is closed. President Bashar al-Assad and his younger brother Maher, commander of the Republican Guard, are determined to subdue this new rebellion as their father did in Hama – one murder at a time. In today’s world it’s harder to turn off the lights and keep tales of repression behind closed doors, but the Assads know no other way. Massacre is a family tradition.

It took time for the diplomacy of the West to catch up with Syria’s horrors. In Washington, they were waiting for Godot as the Damascus regime brutalized its children. In his much-trumpeted May 19 speech from the State Department – “Cairo II,” it was dubbed – President Obama gave the Syrian ruler a choice. He could lead the transition toward democracy or “get out of the way.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has since used the same language.

But one senses this newfound bravado is too little too late. With fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and now Libya, few leaders in the U.S. or Europe want to see the Assad regime for what it truly is. Yet the truth is there for all who wish to see. Ask the Syrians deserting their homes and spilling across the Turkish border about the ways of Bashar and his killer squads and vigilantes with their dirty tricks. They will tell us volumes about the big prison that the regime maintains.

Arab bloggers with a turn of phrase, playing off the expression of “only in Syria,” have given voice to the truth about this dreadful regime. Only in Syria, goes one formulation, does your neighbor go to work in the morning and return 11 years later. Only in Syria does a child enter prison before entering school. Only in Syria does a man go to jail for 20 years without being charged and is then asked to write a letter thanking the authorities upon his release. The list goes on. At last, in Damascus, the mask of this regime has fallen, so late in the hour.



Iran reportedly aiding Syrian crackdown
By Joby Warrick
The Washington Post
May 27, 2011

U. S. officials say Iran is dispatching increasing numbers of trainers and advisers — including members of its elite Quds Force – into Syria to help crush anti-government demonstrations that are threatening to topple Iran’s most important ally in the region.

The influx of Iranian manpower is adding to a steady stream of aid from Tehran that includes not only weapons and riot gear but also sophisticated surveillance equipment that is helping Syrian authorities track down opponents through their Facebook and Twitter accounts, the sources said. Iranian-assisted computer surveillance is believed to have led to the arrests of hundreds of Syrians seized from their homes in recent weeks.

The United States and its allies long have accused Iran of supporting repressive or violent regimes in the region, including Syria’s government, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Many previous reports, mostly provided by Western officials, have described Iranian technical help in providing Syria with riot helmets, batons and other implements of crowd control during 10 weeks of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.

The new assertions – provided by two U.S. officials and a diplomat from an allied nation, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence – are clearly aimed at suggesting deepening involvement of Iranian military personnel in Syria’s brutal crackdown against anti-Assad demonstrators.There was no response on Friday to requests for comment left with the Syrian Embassy and Iranian interests section in Washington.

In the account provided by the diplomat and the U.S. officials, the Iranian military trainers were being brought to Damascus to instruct Syrians in techniques Iran used against the nation’s “Green Movement’’ in 2009, the diplomat said. The Iranians were brutally effective in crushing those protests.

Officers from Iran’s notorious Quds Force have played a key role in Syria’s crackdown since at least mid-April, said the U.S. and allied officials. They said U.S. sanctions imposed against the Quds Force in April were implicitly intended as a warning to Iran to halt the practice.

The Quds Force is a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for operations outside the country. It has helped fund and train Hezbollah and Hamas militants and supported anti-U.S. insurgents inside Iraq.

While the size of the Iranian contingent in Syria is not known, the numbers of advisers has grown steadily in recent weeks despite U.S. warnings, according to the U.S. and allied officials.

The Obama administration mentioned the role of the Quds Forces in announcing two sets of sanctions imposed against Syrian government officials in the past month. A White House executive order last week that targeted Assad and six other top government officials also included a little-noticed reference to Mohsen Chizari, an Iranian military officer who is the No. 3 leader in the Quds Force in charge of training.

The naming of Chizari – who in 2006 was arrested but later released by U.S. forces in Iraq for allegedly supplying arms to insurgents there – suggests that officials possess evidence of his role in assisting Syria’s crackdown on protesters, said Michael Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs for the National Security Council during George W. Bush’s administration.

“There’s a deeply integrated relationship here that involves not only support for terrorism but a whole gamut of activities to ensure Assad’s survival,” Singh said.

It is not unusual for governments to draw on foreign assistance during times of unrest, as Western-allied governments in Bahrain and Egypt did when protests were building in those countries.

Iran’s increasing engagement in the Syrian crackdown reflects anxiety in Tehran about the prospects for Assad, who has failed to end the protests despite rising brutality that human rights groups say has left more than 800 people dead and perhaps 10,000 in prison. While managing to hold on to power, Assad has been severely weakened after months of Syrian unrest, according to current and former U.S. officials and Middle East experts.

“Iran is focused intently on how things are evolving in Syria,” said Mona Yacoubian, a former Middle East expert with the State Department’s intelligence division and who is a special adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The two countries have a long-standing alliance of 30 years-plus. Syria is Iran’s most important inroad into the Arab world, and its perch on the front line with Israel.”

Assad, whose army is stretched across dozens of cities in an unprecedented domestic deployment, increasingly needs help to survive, Yacoubian said. And Iran desperately needs Assad. “If they lose the Syrian regime, it would constitute a huge setback,” Yacoubian said.

Iran, a longtime supplier of military aid to Syria, has been helping Dasmascus battle the current wave of civil unrest since at least mid-March, said the U.S. and allied officials. The emergence of Syria’s first true mass protests – with tens of thousands of demonstrators pouring into the streets demanding Assad’s ouster – initially flummoxed the country’s security leaders, who had little experience with such phenomena.

On March 23, Turkish officials seized light weapons – including assault rifles and grenade launchers – on an Iranian cargo plane bound for Syria. Whether the shipment was intended to help suppress the uprising is unclear, but around the same time, Syria received other Iranian shipments that included riot control gear and computer equipment for Internet surveillance, the U.S. and allied sources said.

Just before the shipments, Assad announced with great fanfare that he was lifting the country’s ban on the use of social media such as Facebook and YouTube. While widely hailed at the time, the move gave Assad’s security police an Iranian-inspired tool for tracking down leaders of the protest movement, said Andrew Tabler, a former Syria-based journalist who is a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Lifting the ban on Facebook helped the regime pinpoint where the [activists] were coming from,” Tabler said in an phone interview from Lebanon, where he remains in contact with opposition figures. “It was not about being magnanimous; it was a way to allow more surveillance, leading to thousands of arrests.”



Arab Spring meets Arab silence
By Aline Sara
Now Lebanon
June 6, 2011

As people in the Arab world continue to voice opposition to dictatorial regimes, their leaders remain mostly silent. Though formerly quiet members of the international community have spoken out against the violence in Syria, the latest country to witness a significant anti-regime uprising and subsequent security crackdown, the Arab League has remained silent.

Turkey is positioning itself as a mediator between the Syrian government and the protesters, hosting opposition activists for The Conference for Change in Syria this week, and the EU and US have passed sanctions against the Syrian leadership. Many however, are left wondering why the Arab states, which condemned the government crackdown against dissenters in Libya and kicked the country out of the Arab League, are keeping mum on the Assad regime.

According to Dr. Hilal Khashan, professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut, the Arab League is not an autonomous entity, and thus never acts on its own. “It intervened on Libya because of Western pressure, because NATO and the US needed to legitimatize their intervention against [Colonel Muammar] Qaddafi,” he said. But the West doesn’t seem very keen on repeating the action, he added, especially not in Syria.

To Egyptian activist and executive director of Cairo-based Arab Forum for Alternatives Mohammad Agati, the question isn’t about Arab silence, but rather its intervention in Libya in the first place. “A typical Arab League does not take any stances,” he said. “If anything, they usually bolster regimes.”

Most experts NOW Lebanon spoke with confirmed that view. Because the majority of the region’s regimes are autocracies, few leaders want to see any of their counterparts get toppled.

“In addition to [their fear of a] domino effect, Syria is regarded as an anchor state and microcosm of the entire Arab East,” explained Khashan. “An authoritarian leadership, a business class, a divisive society, as well as religious and ethnic divisions; if Syria goes down, the entire region will be affected… No one in the Arab League is willing to see Assad go,” he said. When asked whether the Arab states are hoping the Assad regime will tame the protests, no matter how many people are killed, he said, “I hate to agree, but that is the case.”

In the meantime, the death toll continues to rise, with over 1,000 killed since the uprising began two months ago.

“Everyone is in a wait-and-see situation,” said Dr. Imad Salameh, Political Science professor at the Lebanese-American University. If Syria distances itself from its main ally, Iran, the Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will tolerate the status quo, which for them is safer than the unknown, he added. “The players do not see how the alternative can benefit their agenda in the region, and Turks are especially concerned about another Iraq,” he said, alluding to the common fear of a post-Assad wave of Sunni extremism spreading to neighboring states.

Another fear is that while he is still in power, if provoked enough, Assad could intentionally try to destabilize other regional states to put pressure on them. Though Salameh does not believe Assad has the leverage to unleash a wave of violence in neighboring countries, Khashan said he could use the Kurds of Syria as a destabilizing power. “[Iraqi President] Jalal Talabani, who influences Kurds in Syria, told them to take it easy on Assad. They know the regime can contribute to the resumption of the insurgency in Iraq,” he said.

Agati, on the other hand, said the Syrian regime is beginning to feel cornered and would be wise to avoid aggravating its neighbors.

“Relations with Assad and the [other regional] regimes are not as bad as it seems… so it would be stupid of Assad to anger his counterparts,” he said.

While in late April, Human Rights Watch urged Arab countries – especially Egypt and Tunisia, which had their own revolutions – to join international efforts and inquire into the “Syrian government’s use of lethal force against peaceful protesters,” some analysts believe the call was unrealistic.

“Egypt is going through a transitional phase; I don’t think they are seeking confrontation with anyone at the moment,” said Salameh, a thought that was echoed by Agati, who noted that foreign policy had its limits, and that Egypt is currently not in a position to take a stand.

“To expect something from the Arab League is like expecting me to swim from one side of the Atlantic to the other,” added Khashan.

Despite a seeming stalemate on the horizon, Salameh voiced optimism. “At this point, the movement in Syria is indigenous… by Syrians, for Syrians, and this is what makes it stronger,” he said. “Day by day, it’s showing itself not supported or driven by foreign forces, which makes more and more Syrians believe in their cause.”

Though the international community, and especially the Arab League, does not seem willing to intervene, non-government groups from across the world should stand up for the human rights of the Syrian people, he said. “It will help them maintain their opposition.”



Hizbullah dominates new Lebanon government
Agence France Presse
June 13, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) – Nearly five months after his appointment, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Monday announced the formation of a 30-member cabinet in which Hizbullah and its allies hold a majority.

Mikati, a billionaire Sunni businessman, announced his line-up following arduous negotiations over key portfolios including the justice and telecommunications ministries, now controlled by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah alliance.

“This government is a government for all Lebanese, no matter what party they support, be it the majority or the opposition,” 56-year-old Mikati told a news conference at the presidential palace.

But Lebanon’s pro-Western opposition bloc, led by former premier Saad Hariri, has boycotted the new cabinet which it has slammed as a “Hizbullah government.”

Mikati’s cabinet – which does not include any women – has 19 ministers representing the Shiite militant group Hizbullah and its allies.

The remaining 11 were chosen by Mikati, President Michel Sleiman and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

The government must now be approved by at least half of the members of Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament, in which the Hizbullah-led alliance has a small majority.

In a sign of simmering discord between Mikati and the Hizbullah alliance, Druze MP Talal Arslan immediately resigned from his post as state minister in the new cabinet, accusing the premier of being a “liar” and of seeking to deprive the minority Druze of key cabinet posts.

One of the main challenges facing the new cabinet will be how to deal with a UN-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

Hizbullah forced the collapse of the previous government headed by Hariri’s son after he refused to disavow the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The Netherlands-based court is widely expected to indict Hizbullah operatives in the killing, a move the militant group has repeatedly warned against.

Since his appointment in January with Hizbullah’s blessing, Mikati has declined to spell out whether his government will cease all cooperation with the court.

In a clear sign that he does not expect a smooth road ahead, Mikati on Monday urged the Lebanese people to judge his government by its actions and not its individual members or the parties they represent.

“This government is fully aware that the future is not all rosy and that it will face obstacles, challenges and traps,” he said.

A major point of contention in the negotiations over the new line-up was the interior ministry, which will now be headed by retired army general Marwan Charbel, considered close to the president.

The new foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, is a former ambassador to Iran which along with Syria is a major backer of Hizbullah.

The defense ministry is now in the hands of Hizbullah’s Christian allies.

Mikati’s appointment in January sparked the ire of Lebanon’s Sunnis, who are largely loyal to Hariri and saw the move as a bid by Hizbullah to sideline their community.

But Mikati has endeavored to portray himself as an independent politician and not a Hizbullah puppet.

Under Lebanon’s complex power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

The first head of state to congratulate Lebanon on the new government’s formation was Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Damascus was forced to pull its troops out of its smaller neighbor after Hariri’s assassination, ending 29 years of military and political domination.

The UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, congratulated Mikati on the new government and said he hoped it uphold “its... commitment to Lebanon’s international obligations” in a statement released by Williams’ office.

The United States, a major donor to the Lebanese army which blacklists Hizbullah as a terrorist organization, has warned that the formation of a government led by the militant group is likely to affect ties.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.