Mouallem interview, part 2: Iraq, Lebanon, peace process

February 28, I  conducted a 70-minute interview in Damascus with
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem.  Mr. Mouallem spoke about
numerous issues including Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian question, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Saudi Arabia’s new diplomatic activism, the American role in the
region, and bilateral Syrian-US realtions.  Yesterday, I was able
to write a
JWN post that contained the central points of what
he said about Iraq.  Now, I shall write up what I can of the rest
of the interview, though I might not get it all finished in this post
before my next meeting here in Amman.  ~HC

Last November, Mr.
Mouallem headed a small Syrian delegation that, at the invitation of
the Iraqi government, made a short visit to Baghdad.  Then in
January, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made a multi-day state visit to
Damascus– the first time an Iraqi leader had visited Syria for nearly
30 years.  (So long as there was a Baath Party government in Iraq
the two Baath Party leaderships, there and in Syria, pursued a very
harsh competition with each other, which seemed to be exacerbated by
the fact that each claimed to be the ‘authentic’ successor to the
mantle of the Baathist version of pan-Arabism.  During that
period, Mr. Talabani and many, many other members of what were then
opposition movements much hunted and oppressed by the Saddam Hussein
regime, had made their homes in Damascus.)

In Damascus on Wednesday, Mouallem expressed his concern about the
medical crisis that two days earlier had sent Talabani rushing to Amman
for urgent medical treatment.  “I certainly wish him a speedy and
full recovery,” Mouallem said, describing Talabani as “an important

Mouallem made a number of other significant statements about Iraq, in
addition to the ones reported here on JWN
earlier.  As noted there, he did decline to specify the total
length of the timetable for the total US withdrawal from Iraq that he
said Syria sought.  He said instead that that timetable should be
determined primarily by the length of time it would take to rebuild the
Iraqi national forces on a truly nationalist basis– “and we should
make this the timetable.”

He said that the challenge of social and political reconstruction in
Iraq could not be compared with any other cases–

because of the multiplicity of
ethnicities in Iraq and also because of terrible legacy left by
[onetime US administrator L. Paul] Bremer’s many mistakes there.

No-one can completely dismantle an entire army and send all the troops
and the trained officers onto the streets!  And there was no logic
to the complete dismantling of the Baath Party that Bremer
ordered.  Iraq needs
a nationalist movement as a counter-balance to its different religious

No-one could think of legislation that dismantled the civil service
corps of all the ministries.

Once, when [US Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage came here, I
asked him what kind of staffing they had at that point in any of the
Iraqi ministries.  And he told me there were only five or six
people left in each one!

Also, the new Constitution in Iraq is not giving assurances for Iraq’s

Now, we have the issue of Kirkuk coming up.  This is a major
issue!  Why are the Iraqis and Americans not making Kirkuk into an
example of tolerance and coexistence for the future of all of
Iraq?  Why are the Americans not helping to lower the sectarianism
in Iraq?

We have an enormous fear of sectarian fitna
[social breakdown].  This type of conflict can be endless and is
always a recipe for division.  For this reason, President Bashar
al-Asad sent me to many countries to mobilize political and religious
efforts to prevent this from spreading in the region.

We in Syria are proud that
we are a country of tolerance and coexistence without any discrimination
on a religious or ethnic basis.

I asked Mouallem how he saw the continuing political crisis in another
key neighboring country, Lebanon.  He said,

The stability of Lebanon is important
to Syria, and we are also very concerned about Lebanon for humanitarian

During the war against Lebanon last summer we received more than
300,000 Lebanese citizens here in Syria.  We opened our homes to
them!  And we also received more than 400,000 foreigners who had
been in Lebanon and needed to leave the country quickly.  We
helped them to move on to their home countries from here.

We worked night and day to deal with this.  This affected us here
in Syria so much!

You know that according to the Lebanese Constitution, the country
cannot be ruled by a majority that rules over a minority, but only by
coexistence and consensus.  We hope the Lebanese themselves can
solve the present situation on this basis.  I am optimistic that
they can do it.  The Lebanese have to depend on themselves. 
If they can’t do it, no-one can help them.

The special investigation team charged with investigating the February
2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has
been continuing its work.  Earlier reports from the team have
indicated– though not conclusively– some official Syrian role in the
killing. How did Mouallem see the prospects regarding this team’s upcoming

We are working closely with the
investigation, because reaching the truth on this matter is in our
vital interest.

The prospect of having a court to try those named as suspects is a
purely Lebanese issue, and it a point of contention among the Lebanese

The demand of the Lebanese opposition is simple.  It wants a
larger government there, and to be allotted eleven of the government’s
30 members.  And the issue of the court would then be on that
government’s agenda.

The court itself is not an issue for us.  The issue for us is to
prevent others from using
the court issue in a politicized way.

I asked him about the role the French government has played since the
summer of 2004 regarding the Lebanese issue, and Syria’s involvement in
Lebanon.  “It is not France’s role as such, but President Chirac’s
policy that concerns us,” he said.  “That policy seems negative to
us in Syria.  Maybe it stemmed from his personal friendship with
Hariri or from other causes.  We don’t understand why Chirac
adopted that policy.”

In the 1990s, Mouallem had played a key role in the diplomacy on the
Syrian-Israeli “track” of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, first of
all by virtue of his position as Syria’s ambassador in Washington, and
later when he stepped in to lead the Syrian team that negotiated with
Israel until the spring of 1996.  (The course of those
negotiations between 1991 and 1996 were the topic of a book I published
with the U.S. Institute of Peace Press in 2000– you can find further
details of this book, including ordering information, through this page on my home
website.  Mouallem was one key source for that work, having
allowed me to conduct numerous, on-the-record interviews with him on
the topic between 1996 and 1998.)

That diplomacy was interrupted by Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s
withdrawal from the peace talks in 1996, and was later briefly resumed
by Ehud Barak after he became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1999. 
But after a summit meeting held in Geneva in 2000 it all fell apart
again, largely because Barak retracted the offer that PM Rabin had held
out in almost authoritative way back in 1994-95, that in the context of
a full peace with Syria, including wideranging economic and security
provisions, Israel would withdraw from the whole of the territory in
Syrian Golan that it has held under military occupation since 1967…

In Damascus on Wednesday, I asked Mouallem about his current hopes for
the resumption of the peace diplomacy with Israel.

He said,

We never interrupted this peace
process, ever since the Madrid Conference in 1991.  Our question
is always, “Is this process real?”

There was a narrow window after the war on Lebanon last summer, and
President Bashar al-Asad made many interviews saying he was ready to
widen it.  Sadly, the response from Israel and from the American
administration wasn’t encouraging.  Indeed, if we believe the
press reports, the US intervened with the Israelis to prevent them from testing
our seriousness.  Why?

We see the Olmert government as a weak government, and usually weak
governments leave their security and diplomatic policy in the hands of

We didn’t see this US administration put on the agenda the need for a
comprehensive peace.

I asked about the obstacle posed to hopes for peace by the increasingly
large presence of Israeli settlers who have been implanted into the
occupied Syrian and Palestinian territories with the support of
successive Israeli governments.  How could the settlers be dealt with?

He replied,

According to international law, you
can’t create de-facto facts on other people’s territories or change the
heritage or status of these territories, because sooner or later you
are still obliged to withdraw from them.  This was quite clearly
laid out in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle
of the exchange of land for peace that they embodied.

Given the particularly heavy presence of Israeli settlers within the
Palestinian West Bank, I asked if he still saw the possibility for the
Palestinians to be able to establish a viable national state there.

To make peace you need a political
decision.  The issue is not one of settlers, but their presence
there is used as an excuse
for the lack of political will in Israel.

(Regrettably I need to go to another meeting, so I’ll break off the
interview here and get back to it when I can.  More, later. 

Syrian Foreign Minister Mouallem on Iraq, etc

“The day after any military attack against Iran would be a
disaster– not just for the Middle East region, but for international
stability.”  This was the clear warning I heard voiced by Syria’s
Foreign Minister, Walid al-Mouallem, during a 70-minute interview I
conducted with him in Damascus on February 28.

I had asked Mr. Mouallem whether he had any fears of an imminent
military attack against either his country, or Iran.  “About
Syria, I don’t have any such fear,” he said. 

But regarding Iran, it’s more
complicated.  There is no logical analysis that could support the
idea of such illogical behavior.  But honestly, no-one can claim
to predict the behavior of this American administration.

For example, they are saying all the time, ‘All options are open’, and
they are mobilizing all these forces.  No-one knows why!

And then, no-one knows what will happen the day after any attack on
Iran.  Especially, since the Americans didn’t have any strategy
for the day after the invasion of Iraq! 

The day after any military attack against Iran would be a
disaster– not just for the Middle East region, but for international
stability.  Think of the effect on oil prices, and the effects
that would have on Europe and Japan, and on the stability of the
economies of all the Gulf countries.  Think of the consequences of
Iran’s possible acts of retaliation against American interests
worldwide. What would be the effects on the ‘Global War on
Terror’?  What would happen to American soldiers in Iraq and in
Afghanistan?  These are the questions that need to be answered
before there is any military decision.

I hope there will be no
military decision.  These differences can be solved through
political means, through direct negotiations.

I asked his view of the meeting planned for Baghdad March 10, where a
representative of the U.S. administration will sit down for the first time with
representatives of both Syria and Iran. (The Iraqi
government has invited all of its neighbors and all five members
of the Security Council to this conference.)

Mouallem confirmed that his deputy would
be attending the meeting. He added,

The idea of the meeting is to
rally the goodwill of the neighboring countries and to express support
for Iraq’s security and stability.  For Syria, it’s our vital
interest to achieve security and stability in Iraq.  In Syria, we
have more than a million displaced Iraqis.  They are a real burden
on our economy, and on our education and healthcare systems. 
We’re not getting any support from anyone for this– including the
Iraqi government.

This is a humanitarian issue, and it’s increasing in gravity on a daily
basis, because of the terrible security situation in Iraq.

He explained that because Syria hopes that these displaced persons
can speedily return to their homes in Iraq, his government is reluctant
to refer to them as refugees, calling them instead “displaced perople.”

Mouallem described the Bush administration’s decision to attend the
Baghdad conference as,

a partial step in the correct
direction.  But it’s not the full step we are expecting Washington
to reach to.  The full step will be when the Americans decide to
have a comprehensive dialogue on regional issues, starting with the
Arab-Israeli issue, which is the core issue in the region.

Had he seen any signs yet that this was happening?

I haven’t seen any yet.  The only
positive signs we’ve seen from America have been the Baker-Hamilton
report and some signs coming from some of the members of the Senate and
Congress who have been visiting, and from some scholars.

I asked what policies Syria supported in order to
de-escalate the tensions in Iraq.

I’m not a military man, but I read the
news daily.  And I don’t see any news from Iraq or Afghnaistan
that tells me the situation is good…

We speak about the need for an agreed timetable for a US withdrawal
from Iraq– agreed between the US and the Iraqi government.

This timetable would have two or three dimensions: One for the
rebuilding of the Iraqi forces, with a timetable that allows Iraqi
units to replace the foreign forces there.  The second would be
that it would provide a hope
for the many Iraqis resisting occupation, to tell them not to use force
because they could be sure that by a fixed date they would see the
independence and unity of Iraq.  So that would help the job of
rebuilding the security forces.  Thirdly, this would announce that
it is a duty for the Iraqi forces and also for all of Iraq’s neighbors
to help assure this process.

We are not talking this way about a withdrawal in order to offend any
party, but it’s our thinking based on the realities there.

…  No-one is thinking about imposing defeat on the US
forces.  On the contrary, we are trying to find an honorable
withdrawal for them.  Thus we say the timetable should be agreed
with the Iraqi authorities.  Of course, it must be a total
withdrawal, since one of our central goals is to achieve Iraqi
sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity, in accordance with UN
Security Council resolution 1546.

He later declined an invitation to be more precise about the total
length of the timetable for the US withdrawal.

Syria’s views on all these matters are of course extremely significant,
given the country’s pivotal position in the Middle East and given the
fact that it enjoys good relations with not only the present government
of Iraq but also many strands of the Iraqi opposition including many
trends inside Iraq’s Sunni-Arab society.

(Mouallem talked about a number of other important topics, too, including Lebanon and the Palestinian issue.
I’ll post more material from the interview on JWN as soon as I get the
time. Now, I’m afraid I need to run to something else. By the way, I’m now back in Jordan.)

Returning to Damascus

Yesterday, I came by car from Amman to Damascus.  (And no, I
didn’t undergo any life-changing experiences along the way.) I had told
my friends in Damascus that I’d be here by about 11 a.m.
yesterday.  But since I didn’t leave my hotel in Amman till around
8 a.m., that was wildly optimistic.  I came by share-taxi from the
Abdali bus- and taxi-station in downtown Amman.  It took a
bit of time to find a car to Amman that was close to filling up with
passengers, but finally I bought two seats in a car to fill the
complement and we set off from there at around 9:40.

The road out of the ever-increasing reaches of Amman was
undistinguished, but fairly fast along a good highway.  Then we
headed north, arriving at the Jordanian side of the border about an
hour later.  There wasn’t too much of interest along the
road.  But it had rained some over the past two weeks so at least
there was a bit of green in the median strip and along the roadsides,
making a nice contrast with the dun-colored sand and rock of the
surrounding arid hills.  We did pass two or three very new-looking
university campuses along way: the Hashemiya University, the Al-
al-Bayt university, etc.  And of course the numerous turn-offs to
various other Jordanian towns and towards the Iraqi border.  I
watched to see if I could see any noticeable military supply trucks
barrelling along to Iraq, but failed to.

Continue reading “Returning to Damascus”

Interview with Amb. Imad Moustapha

Syria does not fear any imminent US military escalation against itself, though
it fears the Bush administration may yet launch a strike against Iran…
 Syria sees itself as the only power that has good relations with all
the parties inside Iraq, and is very willing to use this position to help
mediate and moderate intra-Iraqi disputes…  It calls for a reconciliation
process in Iraq in which “all parties should be involved, without exception,
but in which none would dominate the others”; and for a regional peace process
involving Iraq, all of its neighbors, and the US…  Syria’s relations
with many portions of US society, including the US Congress, have improved
considerably in the last 18 months, “But the only ‘fortress’ resisting engagement
with us is the administration”….

These were some of the main points in an informal, one-hour interview I held
January 26 with Ambassador Imad Moustapha, in his embassy in Washington DC’s
Kalorama district.

Moustapha drew a strong contrast between the standoff-ish and sullen
attitude the Bush administration presents towards Syria today and the behavior of an earlier US administration, during a period
of much greater substantive tension between the two parties, back in 1983:

Back then, US Navy vessels were directly shelling Syrian military
positions in Lebanon, and the US Air Force was attacking our positions in
the Bekaa valley.  You remember, we shot down a  US flyer on that
occasion…  But despite the continuation of that direct military engagement
between us, the Reagan administration still engaged with us diplomatically,
with the mission of Ambassador Philip Habib, who came to Damascus a number
of times.  But now, they won’t even talk to us?

Regarding his embassy’s relations with other sections of US society, he said
he feels he has had some real success reaching out to people in Congress,
the media, and civil society “including Jewish-American groups.”  He
recalled that several members of Congress visited Syria over the recent winter
break, and noted in particular that the meeting that ISG co-chair James Baker
held in Damascus with Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem last September had
been very successful.  

Mouallem was very clear with Baker.  He told him that
Syria wants to cooperate on resolving the differences inside Iraq– for its
own reasons.  We are not seeking any ‘deal’ to link that issue to Lebanon…

And then, see the strong degree to which we’ve restored our relations with
the government in Iraq.  We have just been having this long and very
productive visit to Syria by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in the course
of which he signed a large number of interior and security agreements with
Damascus.  And this was at exactly the same time that Secretary Rice
was criticising us so strongly on Capitol Hill for our allegedly unhelpful
interference inside Iraq?  Her criticisms don’t seem to make much sense.

… No, I am not concerned about a possible American imminent escalation
against Syria.  But I do worry that the administration might do something
against Iran-
– to try to save face and to reawaken patriotic feelings
among the Americans.

This would be disastrous.

Moustapha expressed significant concern about the eruption of Sunni-Shiite
sectarianism in the Arab world.  “Many Arabs see this as a direct result
of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq .  What happened there was
the dismantling of the state… and then religious, sectarian, and tribal
leaders were the only ones able to provide the most needed sense of some
security in the neighborhoods.”

He said the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria had now reached “nearly one
million”.  He described a visit he had made to one of the numerous,
completely new private universities that have been springing up in Syria
in recent years.  “But this one was different.  This was a completely
Iraqi institution, totally run by Iraqi professors and administrators…
 And there’s another one in Jordan,. too.”

I suggested that these institutions must be bringing great benefits to their
host countries.  But he said, “No,  the main thing is that it’s
a disaster for Iraq!  Iraq was always such a great center of Arab higher
edication!  My father got his degree there… so many other Arabs did.
 And now, it is all becoming destroyed.”

We had a short discussion about the recent reports on a possibly productive
Syrian-Israeli “back-channel” negotiation that occurred between 2004 and
July 2006.  Moustapha said the contacts in question never had any authorization
or standing with the government he represents.  “Syria’s position is
well-known and consistent,” he said.  “I have to tell you we have people
coming to us all the time and offering to conduct some such  private
negotiation.  But we don’t need it.  Our offer to resume the negotiations
at the open, official level with Israel is clear, and it’s on the table.”

He talked a little about his government’s relations with many of the different
parties and groups inside today’s Iraq.  He started by recalling how
many of the politicians who emerged in the immediate post-Saddam era had
had long ties with Syria, having spent a good portion of their previous years
of exile in Damascus.  “Seventeen of the 25 members of the Interim Governing
Council established by Paul Bremer once carried Syrian diplomatic passports!” 
After the US invasion of Iraq, many of those Iraqi politicians had turned
their back on Damascus to some degree– “But now, even those who disdained
us for a while are coming back into a relationship with us.”

Moustapha noted that Moqtada al-Sadr had a very good visit to Syria in early
2005, “and later, he became a kingmaker in the political system in Baghdad.”
 He stressed that in his view, Sadr was very far from being any kind
of an Iranian puppet.

He concluded by laying out his proposal for an all-party reconciliation process
inside Iraq, to be parallelled by a regional process involving all Iraq’s
neighbors and the United States.  “This wouldn’t solve all the
problems,” he conceded.  “But it would certainly change the reginal

I asked whether he saw a role for the UN in convening such a process.  “The
UN can’t act unless the US allows it to,” he said.

…  The above account has been written in great haste.  I’ve had
a lot of work to do in the past few days, and I’ve also been packing and
preparing for a three-month trip away from home that will take me to Cairo,
various other Middle Eastern places, London, and France.  We leave on that
trip less than two hours from now.  But I did want to get this account
of the discussion with Amb. Moustapha posted onto the blog before I leave.

He is a smart and engaging man.  (Heck, he even has his own blog, which
makes some interesting reading.)  He shows a good understanding of the
different trends in the US policymaking elite, and seems to represent his
government’s positions accurately and persuasively.  From talking to
him, I got the sense that he– and most likely also the government he represents–
has a degree of quiet self-confidence about the government’s own survival
and prospects, but considerable concern for the possibility of further, more
damaging deteriorations in Iraq, or a US attack on Iran.  I have to
say he was pretty scathing about the prospects for the US occupation force
in Iraq, and the prospects of President Bush’s latest “surge” plan in particular.
 At one point he noted wryly: “Look , they don’t even seem to be able
to control Haifa Street, which is just a kilometer or so away from the Green
Zone.  How on earth do they hope to control the whole country?”

The Syrian-Israeli back-channel, Part 2

Akiva Eldar does, as I had hoped, have a follow-up piece in Wednesday’s HaAretz to the article he had today about the existence and negotiating “achievements” of an unofficial Syrian-Israeli back-channel between 2004 and July 2006.
The notable additions in the follow-up piece included a report, attributed to “senior officials in Washington” that “U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was kept in the picture about these indirect talks between Syria and Israel.”
Eldar also wrote:

    Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman, the Syrian representative, also said this at his meetings with former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel, adding that Cheney had made no move to stop him from participating in the talks. Suleiman is a Washington resident.

Eldar also reported this:

    Meretz-Yahad Chairman Yossi Beilin said in media interviews Tuesday that the European mediator in the secret talks was Nicholas Lang, head of the Middle East desk at the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
    Lang also played a key role in organizing the Israeli-Palestinian meetings at which Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo drafted the Geneva Initiative, their proposal for a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Liel, who was the driving force behind the secret meetings with Suleiman, is one of the people closest to Beilin.

So, the Swiss. Interesting.
But I find even more interesting the way that Eldar refers to Dick Cheney in that casual, matter-of-fact way, as being the US official whom one would really most seek or expect to see taking an interest in any serious back-channel talks of this nature.
Yeah, why bother with the “President” or his portion of the White House, at all these days? Go to the real source of the power, instead.

Akiva Eldar’s leak about Syrian-Israeli contacts

There are many interesting aspects of the story that HaAretz’s Akiva Eldar published today, telling about some back-channel negotiations pursued– somewhat indirectly– between Syria and Israel, from September 2004 through July 2006.
First, of course, is the content of the not-officially-endorsed “draft agreement” the participants had reportedly arrived at.
Second is the story of who the participants were and how they pursued their contacts.
Third is the reported reason why the initiative became blocked last summer. (Eldar writes: “the Syrian … called for a secret meeting at the level of deputy minister, on the Syrian side, with an Israeli official at the rank of a ministry’s director general, including the participation of a senior American official. Israel did not agree to this Syrian request.” So the contacts ended.)
Fourth is the question of the timing of having this news leaked now, in January 2007, five months after the contacts in question ended. Is this part of an attempt by Israeli or American officials to embarrass Syria while at the same time trying to indicate– especially to other, more fearful Arab governments– that in the event of a big confrontation between the US and Iran even the Syrian regime may secretly be happy not to side with Teheran?
As you may imagine, since Syrian-Israeli relations is something I’ve published two books about, I have quite a lot of thoughts on this topic. Indeed, if I have time this evening I might try to make one of my annotated-table thingies based on Eldar’s reporting and published documents, as a way of organizing these thoughts.
However, I want to dwell a little first on this question of the timing of the leak.
Eldar is far, far coyer than most US journalists would be about the circumstances of his acquisition of the documents and reports in question, and he does nothing whatever to speculate on the motivations of the person or persons who provided them to him.
Maybe in tomorrow’s paper?
You can find HaAretz’s summary of the talks, and the descriptions of the main dramatis personae in this timeline article.
Regardless of who it was who first tipped Eldar off to this story and slipped him the “draft agreement” produced through this channel, he (then or later) succeeded in getting a terse confirmation from lead Israeli participant Alon Liel, a former director-general of the country’s Foreign Ministry, that the contacts in question had taken place… But he got few further comments from Liel.
He wrote that Liel,

    refused to divulge details about the meetings but … [said] that meetings on an unofficial level have been a fairly common phenomenon during the past decade.
    “We insisted on making the existence of meetings known to the relevant parties,” Liel said. “Nonetheless, there was no official Israeli connection to the content of the talks and to the ideas that were raised during the meetings.”

Eldar got a lot more information from Geoff Aronson, who is Director of Research and Publications at the Washington DC-based Foundation for Middle East Peace:

    According to Geoffrey Aronson… who was involved in the talks, an agreement under American auspices would call for Syria to ensure that Hezbollah would limit itself to being solely a political party.
    He also told Haaretz that Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ political bureau chief, based in Damascus, would have to leave the Syrian capital.
    Syria would also exercise its influence for a solution to the conflict in Iraq, through an agreement between Shi’a leader Muqtada Sadr and the Sunni leadership, and in addition, it would contribute to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the refugee problem.
    Aronson said the idea of a park on the Golan Heights allows for the Syrian demand that Israel pull back to the June 4 border, on the one hand, while on the other hand, the park eliminates Israeli concerns that Syrians will have access to the water sources of Lake Kinneret.
    “This was a serious and honest effort to find creative solutions to practical problems that prevented an agreement from being reached during Barak’s [tenure as prime minister] and to create an atmosphere of building confidence between the two sides,” he said.

Eldar then has another para there, unattributed, in which he writes:

    It also emerged that one of the Syrian messages to Israel had to do with the ties between Damascus and Tehran. In the message, the Alawi regime – the Assad family being members of the Alawi minority – asserts that it considers itself to be an integral part of the Sunni world and that it objects to the Shi’a theocratic regime, and is particularly opposed to Iran’s policy in Iraq. A senior Syrian official stressed that a peace agreement with Israel will enable Syria to distance itself from Iran.

Well, obviously Eldar’s not telling us who he got that from, precisely…
This is all very reminiscent of what I was writing about back in my 2000 book on the Syrian-Israeli negotiations of the 1990s, where I wrote “The general effect of the Syrian-Iranian link on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations of the mid-1990s can be viewed in a number of different (and not mutually incompatible) ways… ” Buy the book and go to pp. 179-80 to see how I characterized those ways… Or if I have time I’ll look for my old floppy disks of the text and see if I can retrieve that chunk.
So okay, Eldar is telling us that he has talked to Liel and to Aronson. It’s not certain if he has talked to the unnamed “senior official” of an unnnamed “European country” who also– along with Aronson– played a mediating role during these contacts, and whose government provided, apparently, all the logistics for at least one phase of them. I would say, from reading Eldar’s articles there, probably not. Things he reports that are attributed, in a general way, to “the European mediator” could as easily have come from the detailed reporting that this mediator presumably gave to Liel and his two other (unnamed) Israeli colleagues in the venture.
You ask about the attitude toward these contacts of official Washington? Well according to Eldar, back near the beginning of this channel, in 2004, the key Syrian-American “Mr. Fix-it” involved, Abe Soleiman, told a Turkish diplomat who had helped to open up the channel that year, that,

    the Syrians were prepared to begin negotiations with Israel immediately: formal negotiations, certainly not “academic talks.” The Prime Minister’s Bureau in Jerusalem didn’t care whether Liel and his friends sat down with the Syrians to hear what they had to say − but no negotiations. The Israeli reason (or excuse): The Americans are not prepared to hear about contact with Syria.

In my judgment, if the Sharon government at that time had really wanted to sit down and negotiate with Syria, it would not have been deterred by any signs of displeasure from Washington. However, I don’t doubt that there were signs of such displeasure from the Bushites– then, as there would be now if any official, authorittative peace talks with Syria were being proposed by Olmert. (Which they aren’t– though his FM, Tzipi Livni, has made some remarks expressing interest in the idea.)
But anyway, back to Eldar, and the circumstances of, and possible motivations for, this latest “leak”.
Firstly, it seemed to come much more evidently from the Israeli side than from the Syrian side.
Secondly, in that paragraph full of “unattributed” material, in particular, it looks as though there’s a manipulative and quite possibly intentionally mendacious political hand at work. In “one of the Syrian messages to Israel… the Alawi regime [asserted] that it considers itself to be an integral part of the Sunni world and that it objects to the Shi’a theocratic regime, and is particularly opposed to Iran’s policy in Iraq”?? This is crass and barely believable stuff. Is it just Eldar’s unfamiliarity with the details and context of what he is writing about there? Or did somebody else give him explicitly this message that he should try to get into his article?
What is not credible in that report is that anyone representing the Syrian regime would use that particular kind of sectarian discourse (“part of the Sunni world”) rather than continuing the use of the secular Arab-nationalist discourse with which it has always sought to disguise its minoritarian sectarian status. Also, I don’t find it believable that any Syrian official would say straight out to someone communicating with an Israeli interlocutor that Syria “is particularly opposed to Iran’s policy in Iraq”.
There are a number of possibilities here. The possibility of sloppy “reporting” of Damascus’s position or words by Abe Suleiman can’t be ruled out. (On the other hand, his reporting was also being paralleled by the European mediator for most of the relevant time.)
Well, I’m not close enough to that whole story any more to do any independent digging into it of my own. (Though h’mmm, maybe I should go to Damascus sometime next month, when I’ll be in Cauiro, anyway? In 1998, when I was working on my 2000 book, I did some really interesting interviews with officials there and with former officials in Israel who’d participated in the relevant diplomacy…)
Maybe Eldar will give us more of the details we need, in follow-up articles.
Next up, if I have the time: just a few further questions into the status of the quite amazing map that Eldar published with his piece. It quite clearly conveys that the whole of the area of Syrian Golan that is now occupied by Israel will be included in the “Peace Park” that is a key device used by those unofficial negotiators to try to resolve some outstanding issues of borders and water access.
However, the text of the (still completely unoffical) “Draft Agreement” that the “negotiators” had come up with states clearly (Art. VI-1) that “The park will extend from the agreed upon border [that is, the long-agreed June 4, 1967 line between the two countries] eastward to a line to be determined by mutual agreement.”
It notably does not say it will extend from the June 4 line eastward to the present disengagement line, which is the picture that Eldar’s map there clearly conveys. The half-million-plus Syrian citizens who are the people displaced/”cleansed” from this occupied area in 1967-8, and their offspring, will no doubt look at Eldar’s map with its park-like tree icons dotted all over their former towns, villages, hamlets, and farms with some dismay. (As always, you can read about the human dimensions of the Golan question here.)
Anyway, now I truly need to run.

Bush losing control of the agenda?

Sen. Bill Nelson (Dem., of Florida) is the first of four U.S. senators who plan to visit Syria over the congressional break. (The others are Kerry of Massachusetts, Dodd of Connecticut, and Spector of Pennsylvania. The first two dems, and Spector a Republican.)
Nelson is there now, and has met with Pres. Bashar al-Asad. After the meeting he called reporters in the US

    to say Assad was willing to help control the Iraq-Syrian border…
    “Assad clearly indicated the willingness to cooperate with the Americans and or the Iraqi army to be part of a solution” in Iraq, Nelson told reporters… The U.S. says foreign fighters often enter Iraq across that boundary.
    Syrian officials have indicated a willingness before to engage the U.S. in discussions about Iraq, which the Bush administration has treated with skepticism. Nelson said he viewed Assad’s remarks as “a crack in the door for discussions to continue. I approach this with ” to say Assad was willing to help control the Iraq-Syrian border.”

Bush spokesman Tony Snow-job is not happy that Nelson has gone to Damascus:

    “We don’t think that members of Congress ought to be going there,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said, adding that the United States continues to denounce Syria’s meddling in Lebanon and its ties to terrorist groups.
    Snow noted the existing diplomatic ties between U.S. and Syria. “I think it’s a real stretch to think the Syrians don’t know where we stand or what we think,” he said.

The AP reporter there, Anne Plummer Flaherty, noted that originally the State Department had tried to dissuade Nelson from making his trip. But he said he

    ultimately received logistical support from the State Department in what he called a “fact-finding trip” across the Middle East, being transported by embassy officials from Jordan’s capital city of Amman to Damascus. Prior to heading to Damascus, Nelson met with top Israeli and Palestinian officials; in coming days, he plans to visit Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq.
    Nelson said he was not interested visiting Iran “at this time” and did not say why.
    However, the senator did say that he raised the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran to Assad, saying “he ought to understand that that’s not only a threat to him, Syria, but to the entire world. . . . He took note,” Nelson said.
    The senator said he also expressed to the Syrian leader the problems caused by Hezbollah and Hamas and urged Assad to support the release of captured Israeli soldiers. Nelson said the Syrian president responded by saying
    Israel had 20 Syrians in captivity, one of whom died recently from leukemia.
    The senator shrugged off suggestions he was challenging Bush’s authority by sidestepping administration policy that the U.S. have no contact with Syrian officials.
    “I have a constitutional role as a member of Congress,” Nelson said.
    Meanwhile, Bush criticized Damascus anew and called on it to free all political prisoners…

Yes, I’d like the government of Syria to free all its political prisoners. But I’d also like President Bush to free– or bring before a fair tribunal– all the political prisoners held by the US. That includes the 450-plus people held at Guantanamo, some 7,000 or so reported prisoners held by the US in Iraq, and others held in secret CIA detention facilities in Bagram, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
I note that many of the people held in Guantanamo have now been deprived of their liberty for more than five years without having any charges brought against them,. and have been subject to often terrible abuse and/or outright torture at the hands of their captors…
Be that as it may… I think a big part of the picture here is that Bush is fairly rapidly losing the capacity he has exercized since January 2001, to completely control the US national agenda and the workings of all three branches of the US government (ok, the Supreme Court only since Justice O’Connor’s resignation last year… But she and the rest of ’em gave him a mighty nice prresent back in December 2000, if you recall.)
Here, anyway, is a little of what Syria’s ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha wrote in the op-ed he had in the WaPo on Sunday:

    if the Bush administration comes to realize that truly engaging consists of an honest dialogue in which all parties are involved, then positive results will be possible — for Iraq, the United States, Syria and the entire region.
    Contrary to what many in Washington believe, past Syrian-American collaboration has yielded many beneficial outcomes, a fact that several former U.S. officials could confirm. These include, among other things, Syrian cooperation on the Middle East peace process, on al-Qaeda and, yes, on Iraq.
    What motivates Syria to engage on Iraq? Let us be clear: Syria is not looking for a “deal” with the U.S. administration on any issue. The situation in Iraq is a matter of paramount concern to Syria, particularly the unprecedented levels of death and destruction and the possibility of Iraq’s disintegrating, which would have terrible repercussions for the entire Middle East.
    Thus Syria has the will and the capacity to assist in Iraq. This help is imperative to Syrian national interests. Syria can cooperate on security issues with the Iraqis and can give considerable support to their political process. The visit of our foreign minister to Baghdad, and the resumption of diplomatic ties between Damascus and Baghdad after a 25-year lapse, clearly illustrates our commitment to a free, peaceful and unified Iraq.
    But Syria recognizes that no magical solution exists to instantaneously achieve the desired objectives. A rigorous and comprehensive approach is required. This approach should include a reconsideration of U.S. policy in Iraq, starting with the recognition of the necessity to include all parties involved: neighboring countries and all factions of the Iraqi political and social spectrum.
    No party should feel defeated or excluded. All stakeholders in the future of Iraq should feel that it is in their own interest to help stabilize the situation.
    A solution should also include U.S. acknowledgment that the majority of Iraqis regard the occupation as only exacerbating the situation and causing further violence and instability. A U.S. plan for withdrawal should be on the table. Only such a step will prove to the various parties involved that the United States genuinely plans to return Iraq to the Iraqis.

This position looks very compatible with the recommendations of the ISG.
The idea of dealing constructively with Syria is, of course, completely anathema to most US neocons, who still want to keep the administration pointed toward “regime change” in Damascus. (Just what the world doesn’t need: another US military-political offensive, leading to the destabilization of yet another significant Middle Eastern power.) These neocons, operating out of Cheney’s office and elsewhere, have gotten Bush so much in their grip that when, toward the end of Israekl’s 33-day war against Hizbullah in the summer some Israelis started suggesting that perhaps Israel should start to revive its peace talks with Syria as a way of stabilizing the region some, they reported that they received a big slapdown from the Bushites.
Can you believe that? That US officials would be actively discouraging the Israelis from engaging in exploratory peace feelers with Syria?
There is also the point of view heard among some conseravtives (as exeplified in this op-ed in today’s CSM by John Hughes) that urges, in a kind of faux-Machiavellian bravado, that okay, well maybe the Syrians are really bad, “but we could get some leverage by trying to split them off from the Iranians.”
To which all I can say is: Ain’t going to happen.
I don’t know if perhaps Nelson or some of the other Senators visiting Damascus may be trying to test that “split them from the Iranians” approach. Well fine, if they want to try. But more important than pushing that particular line, they would do much better to sit down and brainstorm with the Syrians what they, the Iranians, and all the other powers neighboring Iraq can do to work with Iraqis and Americans to avoid a complete catastrophe from enveloping everyone in the region.
And yes, that includes the 147,000 US troops now in Iraq. Look for my CSM column on the topic tomorrow.

Patrick Lang: “The Best Defense…”

On 9/11, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia featured a talk by Colonel Patrick Lang – who returned here by reputation as a voice of reason, experience, “independence,” and wit regarding the Middle East. He did not disappoint.
Miller Center lectures are a rather unique phenomena here. First, they are popular. For this one, I arrived five minutes “early” (e.g. very late) – to be escorted to the fourth and last overflow room. Not bad for forums that ordinarily are simulcast on the net. Yet Miller audiences are hardly filled with bright-eyed students; the Miller Center is off the main “grounds” (campus) and students rarely comprise more than a handful amid the throngs. Instead, these sessions draw from the extraordinary community of retired policy professionals who seem to be flocking here to Hoo’ville.
Colonel Lang himself is “retired” from full-time government service, having served with distinction in the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) and then at the highest levels of U.S. Military Intelligence. His training includes a Masters Degree in Middle East studies from Utah, and he served in the mid-1970’s as the first Professor of Arabic at West Point. Today, he combines ongoing consulting and training projects with frequent media appearances, ranging from PBS to CBS to BBC. For more, see his bio and publications highlights, via this link on his blog.
Colonel Lang “sticks out” in Washington for his informed willingness to take on what passes for “received wisdom” regarding the Middle East. His publications include the memorable “Drinking the Koolaid” in Middle East Policy. It’s still an important, sobering read. Quite far afield from Graham Allison’s realist “rational choice” decision-making model, Lang attributes the disastrous decision to invade Iraq to a loss of nerve among policy makers and analysts. Instead of honorably sticking to their convictions, even if it meant “falling on their swords,” career-preserving senior policy makers were more inclined to drink from a Jonestown-like vat of poisonous illusions. “Succumbing to the prevailing group-think” drawn up by the small core of neoconservative “vulcans,” Lang’s former intelligence colleagues “drank the koolaid” and said nothing, leaving them henceforth among the “walking dead” in Washington.
Speaking here on 9/11, Lang’s comments were wide-ranging and stimulating; he didn’t stick narrowly to his talk title on Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah, but he had much to suggest related to all three. I offer a few highlights here:
On Military Options against Iran:
Here Lang summarized his now widely cited National Interest article from earlier this spring. (Issue #83 – no link available). Even though Lang and co-author Larry Johnson seem to accept standard worst-case assessments of Iran’s nuclear aspirations, their article makes a compelling case that there are no “realistic” military options to attack Iran, by land or air, conventional, or exotic. Air assaults, whether by Israel or the US, are a “mirage” – unlikely to succeed for long, while incurring the risks of severe retaliations by Iranian assets.
To Lang, these dangers are obvious. Yet spelling them out serves the purpose of going on record so that neoconservatives in the future cannot claim – as they did with Iraq – that the disaster could not have been foreseen. This time, we’ve been warned.
On the greatest source of conflict within Islam:
If I understood him correctly, Lang was not as concerned about a battle between extremists and political pietists, deeming the “pietists” overwhelmingly still in the ascendant. Instead, Lang’s “bigest concern” for the Muslim world was over the “revolution” in the Shia-Sunni equation. The old order of “Sunnis rule and Shias survive” is now in question. Lang depicted Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear option as the latest extension of a long-forming Shia effort to resist domination from the Sunni realm.
Yet Lang did emphasize that Muslims of all stripes come together in resentment towards Israel — as a direct affront to the well being of the faith. To accept the existence of Israel means having to admit that the Islamic world has been truncated, that part of the “realm of God” had been given back. Hizbullah thus has become widely popular among all Muslims, not just among Shia, for its demonstrated capacity to resist both Zionists and the modern day crusaders.
Iran’s support for Hizbullah:
Lang deems Iran’s support for Lebanon’s Hizbullah as “first and foremost” useful for Iran’s pursuit of respect and leadership within the Islamic world. Yet Iranian financial assistance for Lebanon has shrewdly earned friends among Arab Christians and Sunnis too. In this light, Iran’s low-key strategy has been quite successful; hardly a rat-hole, such “success” draws more support.
On Why Hizbullah beat Israel:

Continue reading “Patrick Lang: “The Best Defense…””

Resources on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

I wanted to put in a link to Anthony Shadid’s informative recent interview with Syrian MB head Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni (also here).
Shadid wrote:

    “Syrian society today is destroyed,” [Bayanouni] said. “The primary aim right now is to transform society into a new era where political and democratic life will be rebuilt.”

About the MB’s political plans, Shadid wrote:

    “The organization is not going to be an alternative to this regime,” [Bayanouni] said. “The alternative will be a broad-based national government to which the Muslim Brotherhood will contribute, as does any other political force.”
    Among the various Syrian political factions — Islamic activists, Arab nationalists, Syrian nationalists, communists and other leftists — nearly every party has abandoned the revolutionary, generation-old notion that it alone can serve as the agent of change. The Baath Party has not; the constitution still declares it “the leading party of both the society and the state.” In Bayanouni’s words, and in a spate of declarations, the Brotherhood has forsworn that role, mirroring reforms of the group in other countries including Egypt and Jordan.
    In 2002, Bayanouni published a national charter that called for a democratic state and rejected violence. In 2004, the Brotherhood disavowed the idea that “we consider ourselves to be the movement that represents all Muslims.” In the same document, it endorsed women’s rights and said it would seek only the gradual introduction of Islamic law, leaving the actual legislation to elected representatives. (Requiring women to wear the veil, segregating education or banning alcohol “are not a priority at this point,” Bayanouni said in the interview.) A year later, in a National Call for Salvation, the Brotherhood disavowed revenge for past crimes and called for political parties and free elections.
    Last month, it joined secular and minority opposition groups in endorsing what was called the Damascus Declaration, a four-page manifesto hailed by a still-feeble Syrian opposition as a blueprint for an alternative to Assad’s government and a first for cooperation between secular and religious activists.
    “The Muslim Brotherhood,” Bayanouni said, “is ready to accept others and to deal with them. We believe that Syria is for all its people, regardless of sect, ethnicity or religion. No one has the right to exclude anyone else.”

    At his home in London, Bayanouni talks about returning to the alleys of Jubaila, the quarter of Old Aleppo where he grew up. His father died while in prison in 1975, his mother after he went into exile in 1979. But, he said smiling, he will visit the rest of his family. “There are relatives I don’t even know,” he said.
    For some Islamic activists, years in the West radicalize them, reinforcing their alienation in a culture that’s not their own. Not Bayanouni. He said his time in exile helped him reconsider his beliefs.
    “One of the things I learned,” he said, “was to accept the other.”
    And in that is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of Arab politics today. To a remarkable degree, albeit with different inflections and still untested, some secular and religious activists are speaking a common language of citizenship and individual rights in the face of authoritarian governments. Bayanouni … said he wanted to see “a civil state based on democratic institutions.”
    “The religion of the majority is Islam, and the ethnicity of the majority is Arab,” he said. “Those are facts on the ground, but citizenship is the base on which people should interact. Whatever is the result of the democratic process should be accepted.”

Here is the Wikipedia’s entry on the MB in Syria.
Here is a very informative mid-August interview with Bayanouni, on the Jamestown Foundation website. Nearly all the articles linked to at the top of that page are also informative.

Syrian crackdown, conference canceled

I got a sad email this morning, from a staff assistant at a reform-oriented organization in Damascus called the Tharwa Project. Just ten days ago, Dr. Samer al-Ladkany, the assistant director of Tharwa, had invited me to participate in a big conference Tharwa was organizing in Damascus under the title “”Recognizing the Multicultural Society for Successful Democratic Transitions.” Ladkany was inviting me to speak about some aspects of South Africa’s historic transition from minority-based rule to full democracy, and naturally I was pretty excited at the prospect of doing so. After all, in Syria power has for many decades now been quite disproportionately concentrated in the hands of the Alawite community that makes up roughly 11% of the national population– and it desperately needs to find a peaceful way to transition to a fully inclusive, accountable, and rights-respecting form of national rule…
In today’s email, the staff assistant wrote:

    I must ask you to put everything on hold for right now. I am very sorry, but we are having some problems here in Damascus. I am not completely sure what is going on, but I went to work today, just to find out that we have been closed down…permanently. The worst part is, I have not been able to contact the director here in Damascus.

I guess that would be Ladkany. The “big boss” at Tharwa– the organization’s founder, Ammar Abdel-Hamid– left Syria for the US around a month ago, after being warned by the security services that he should do so.
I am still hoping that ways can be found to urge Bashar al-Asad’s regime to– as I put it in this JWN post a couple of weeks ago–

    “do a Frederik De Klerk” — that is, to find ways to repair the broken fabric within his own country by opening up serious political negotiations with his political opponents from the country’s majority population.

Obviously, right now, the prospects for that happening look significantly bleaker.
The latest move against the Tharwa Project in Damascus was, sadly, fairly predictable. Last Thursday, Pres. Asad made a strongly nationalist speech in which he came out swinging against Washington, and against the Washington-pushed activities of UN investigator detlev Mehlis. Al-Hayat’s Ibrahim Hamidi interpreted what was happening as Asad “preparing Syria for the probable imposition of international sanctions.” (As reported here.)
Then on Saturday, the mukhabarat (security services) arrested Kamal Labwani, a Syrian democracy activist who had just returned to his country from the US. While in the US, Labwani met in the White House with with U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor J. D. Crouch. He also did an interview for the (US government-operated) al-Hurra TV and other media outlets.
So it definitely looks as if the regime is in a defiant, hunkering-down mode. I think that’s a great pity. The well-connected and Damascus-based Syria expert Josh Landis has written on his blog, “Syrians will put up with sanctions lite if the government moves ahead purposefully with internal reform designed to free the economy.” I largely agree with that assessment. I also think that– like the international isolation that South Africa’s apartheid regime faced in the late 1980s– Syria’s growing international isolation today might well act to help persuade people at the heart of the regime that wide-ranging internal political reform is not only a good tactic, but also, a necessary policy if the interests of their nation and their sub-national community are to be preserved.
Josh does add, it is true, “Of course, it is hard to do this when being isolated.” I would add to that, that it would be extremely hard for the Syrian regime to open up the political space that is needed for reform when it is not only the subject of very hostile intent from the USA, but also in an actual and unresolved state of war with Israel.
Well, I have a lot of other thoughts about this whole subject. I should also, probably, take the opportunity of either writing something here on JWN, or writing something new in al-Hayat, to set down some of the things I would have said at the conference in damascus, if it were held.
Yes, there is much that is parallel between the experiences of the voteless majority in South Africa under apartheid and the powerless majority in Syria under the Asads. But there are also several signal differences. One is the seeming absence of any inclusive and highly disciplined opposition party on the model of the ANC. Actually, I’m not sure if the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood might reach some of the necessary criteria (though a problem there regarding “inclusivity”.) As for the secular-liberalizing opposition networks, they all seem to me to be dominated by prima donnas and individualists. In the latter category, I’m afraid I would probably have to include the Syrian liberalizer who’s best known in Washington DC– Ammar Abdel-Hamid, the founder of the Tharwa Project…. In his blog, Abdel-Hamid has called for the opposition to build “networks, networks, networks”. (Calling for the creation of single, disciplined party or front organization would, I think, be more effective.) But even regarding “networks” he doesn’t actually seem to be very respectful of the other people who might be in such a network. In this recent post he summarily dismissed “the Syrian opposition” as being “weak and idiotic.”
Altogether, a story that is tragic at many, many levels.
Most important, now, though: What can we do to try to ensure the safety of Samer Ladkany?