Saturday, March 25, 2006

Syrian Opposition: Waiting for...What?

Call me impatient or call me a skeptic but its seems to me that all the internal and external Syrian opposition meetings and declarations are generating a lot of heat and very little light. How exactly is the opposition planning to change the regime?

There seems to be unanimous agreement among the opposition that foreign military intervention is not an option. Besides, the Americans, the only ones capable -and foolish enough- to entertain this possibility, have their hands full next door. No one wants to risk a violent internal change either as it might degenerate into civil strife.

The opposition seems to be confident that a combination of internal and external pressures will eventually topple the regime. Statements have been made over the past year that the regime is only months away from total collapse. That appears to be wishful thinking. By all indications that I can see, the regime appears to be unrepentant and largely unfazed. Instead of opening up the regime appears to be becoming more repressive. Instead of escalating pressure on Bashar and Co., the Americans and Europeans seem to have loosened the noose around his neck. Sure there is the periodic State Department scolding of the regime but nothing like the bluster of the first few months after the Hariri assassination. Bashar has delivered on the issue of border control and the Americans, especially after the Hamas win and the ongoing mess in Iraq, would now rather have stability than democracy. Moreover, in the name of Arab harmony and stability, the Egyptians and Saudis are working to defuse some of the international pressure on the Syrian regime. The expectation was that the results of the Hariri investigation would be the straw that would break the regime's back. However, a year after the crime and with the initial investigation bungled and tainted by the Lebanese authorities, the trail is cold. Neither Mehlis nor Brammertz have produced "smoking gun" evidence of complicity by the leadership of the Syrian regime (to paraphrase: absence of proof is by no means proof of innocence).

What about people power? Unless I missed something major, not much seems to be happening. There are the occasional small, timid anti-government demonstrations that are brutally nipped in the bud. The Syrian people are either too cowed by the regime or afraid of what they see happening in Iraq; or the majority are too politically disengaged to care. If there is a simmering population ready to explode, I don't see any evidence of it. Perhaps it is that most members of the opposition -with the exception of the Kurds- do not have large constituencies that can be readily mobilized into the street.

So coming back to my initial question: how do you change a regime non-violently if the regime will not "go gently into the night"? The answer is a bloodless coup, a palace coup, or to use a medical metaphor, a minimally invasive procedure. To achieve such a coup, you have to have friends on the inside. Enter Khaddam. This is perhaps why despite his unsavory past and unconvincing overnight conversion to the lofty ideals of freedom and democracy, the opposition is flocking to him. The man's got a plan; he talks of preparing to drop a "political bomb" and hints of having highly placed individuals in the Syrian armed forces ready to the bidding on his behalf.

Like many Syrians, I do not trust Khaddam but I really don't see anyone else capable of effecting the change that we are looking for. At the same time I fear what he will do the morning after.

(Photo: AK, Muir Woods, California)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Fragments of Memory

Here are fragments of memories from my Syria formed in childhood. To me, these are important memories that decades of absence have failed to erase and make irrelevant. Despite living and adapting to other lands, Syria is the only place I feel a primordial connection to. This sense of belonging is perhaps subjective but paradoxically seems to grow with time -and age.

  • Getting separated, at age five, from my mother in Souk el Hamidieh and making my way back home while my parents and the police frantically searched for me...
  • Breathing the cool, crisp, early morning mountain air of Slenfeh...
  • The large sepia-toned portrait of my grandfather, whom I never met, hanging in a thick wooden frame in my grandmother's house...
  • Feeding ducks in Jnainat el Sabkeh (does it exist?) in Damascus...
  • The familiar comforting smell of my grandmother's house: a whiff of samneh from the last meal mixed with the smell of laurel-scented olive oil soap
  • My cousin demonstrating to us the flammable nature of farts (yes, it is true)...
  • Picnicking at the family's bustan and watching my father's uncle, a large man, singlehandedly finish off a whole basket full of oranges...
  • Taking in the scenery on a languid, hot summer day, while riding a Beirut-Lattakia taxi with Um Kulthoum playing on the radio... And watching in awe as we drove past Qalat el Hosn up on the hill...
  • Watching the snow fall over Damascus and having my mother point up to Jabal Kaisson and tell us that Madame Holle (a German fable) is shaking the feathers out of her pillow case...
  • Family picnics in Zabadani...
  • Looking up from the street to see our newborn youngest brother-the only Damascene among us- held up to the hospital room window by my mother...
  • Swimming at Shate' al Azrak...

These are some of my nostalgic memories of Syria. Memories distorted by the filter of time and distance but nonetheless real memories to me.

Filtered but not forgotten are the unpleasant memories; the hasty, forced departures and the fragmentation and dispersion of a vibrant extended family into the four corners of the world. This is a story that can be told by tens of thousands of Syrian families driven away by the stifling political oppression and lack of economic opportunities afforded by the inept, corrupt and dictatorial rule of the Baath regime for the past forty three years.

(Photo by AK: Winter, Western New York)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry...

I recently saw the movie The Syrian Bride, an Israeli film with a largely Israeli-Arab cast and Arabic script. It is the story of a Syrian bride from Majdal Shams on the day of her wedding and the trials and tribulations she has to go through to cross the border into Syria to meet her bridegroom. I will not give any more of the plot but highly recommend this gem of a movie to anyone who has not yet seen it. And yes, I shed some tears... But of course, nothing compared to the torrents unleashed by my wife.

Friday, March 03, 2006

No Civil Society Without Safeguarding the Rights of Individuals

We have been led to believe that since Bashar's accession to power, the Syrian intelligence services have become Mukhabarat lite. However, Joe Pace, in his recent Syria Comment post makes the point that this less brutal behavior applies only to known opposition figures who are in the public spotlight and whose case is championed by local and foreign human rights groups.
This has led me to wonder about what is known about the number of political prisoners lingering in Syrian jails unrecognized and unaccounted for. I searched the websites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Syrian Committee for Human Rights and other Syrian rights organization with little success. The only information available are the names of the few who are released once in a while or the occasional names of people arrested but with no follow up about their outcome. You seem to only get a glimpse of the few who are freed, but how many are in? Is it in the hundreds? The thousands? When a few prisoners are released to great publicity about Bashar's benovelent reformist heart, it means nothing if these arbitrary harassments, detentions and imprisonments do not stop.

Apologists for the present regime want us to give Bashar a chance and do not bother themselves with such issues. They support a top down approach to change with emphasis on economic reform and reform aimed at rooting out corruption. That is fine but cannot come at the expense or to the exclusion of reform at the level of individual rights. Corruption, bribery and lack of accountability in the economic sector leads to the enrichment of the thieving ruling class and further impoverishment of the common citizen. However, corruption and lack of accountability in the judicial system leads to shattered lives from prolonged imprisonment, torture and sometimes death.

Respect of individual rights is not an idealistic abstraction that should wait its turn in the reform queue. It is the fundamental building block of a civil society. There is nothing like personal experience to drive the idea home. In the 1980s, as a young man minding my own business, I was picked up by the Mukhabarat in the departure lounge of Beirut airport. I spent the day in the dank basement of their headquarters at Ramlet el Baida along with about 20 other people seeing my future melt away in front of my eyes. Fortunately, an acquaintance who saw me being arrested alerted friends who in turn secured the proper Wasta to get me out. My release was just as arbitrary and capricious as my arrest. My fate did not depend on my innocence or guilt but on the chance occurrence that someone actually witnessed the event and had the proper "connections". This is how cheap and insignificant the life of an individual citizen is. I was extremely lucky but I know that there are many citizens now wasting away in prisons unrecognized and unaccounted for.

I want to know what their names are, what they are accused of and what their sentences are. To me their lives are as important as those of Anwar Bunni and Riad Seif.

Below are links to human Syrian human rights organizations:

Syrian Human Rights Committee
Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies
Free Syria
Syria National Council
Syrian Women
Arab Organization for Human Rights-Syria