This post is culled from a lot of other posts elsewhere so forgive me if its a little incoherent and strangely worded. I just wanted to get some conversation going.

First a little bit on Syria's position in the Zionist configuration:

from Asad Abukhalil ("the Angry Arab"):

” Some Arab progressives yesterday were displeased with negative comments I wrote against Asad regime and against the “refusalness” (mumana`ah) stance of the lousy Syrian regime. Their point is that Asad regime has supported Hizbullah’s resistance to Israel. My answer: I don’t trust the Syrian regime: even when they, on rare occasions, take a verbal stand against Israel. This is a regime that is motivated first and foremost–since Hafidh days–by the obsession with its own security and survival. It killed resistance fighters against Israel when it suited its interests: i am talking about its murderous military intervention in 1976 when it crushed a nascent Lebanese-Palestinian alliance that was destined to win against Israel’s death squads in Lebanon. That victory would have been detrimental against Israeli interests and the Syrian regime collaborated with Israel in the war on Tal Az-Za`tar camp in the same year. The Syrian regime supported Hizbullah’s fight against Israel for its own reasons, and it also fought Hizbullah into the 1980s. The Asad regime’s calculations were never about liberating Palestine or about empowering resistance against Israel. The Asad regime truly supported one PLO organization: As-Sa`iqah, which contributed nothing in the struggle against Israel, unless you count thuggery, blackmail, looting, and murders as struggle. Asad was Minister of Defense when George Habash was put in jail in 1968, because the regime did not want any fight against Israel. In the 1990s, PLO leaders in Damascus were summoned by `Abdul-Halim Khaddam (on orders of Hafidh Al-Asad) to tell them that they are barred from plotting any attacks on Israel, and were sometimes prevented from making political statements against Israel (according to a senior member of the delegation who told me about it). So the progressive has a clear task: to support the overthrow of the regime, while opposing the reactionary Muslim Brothers and their liberal allies who are capable of replacing one lousy repressive regime with another. Secondly, progressive owe it to the Syrian people to support their legitimate struggle against dictatorship. And Syrian jails are full of leftists and communists who were the most daring in their struggle against the regime. I am thinking about the brutal treatment of the leaders and members of Communist Action Party (which succeeded in recruiting among `Alawites). Thirdly, the entire record of the regime vis-a-vis Israel is shameful: it was a record of defeats. And a senior Minister in the government of Hafidh Al-Asad in 1973 shared with me deep suspicions about the defeatist role played by Hafidh at the time. Fourthly, Arab progressive have no choice but to support the overthrow of every single Arab regime (and add Iran to the mix, and of course the Zionist entity which should be abolished and replaced by a liberated Palestine where people can live in freedom and equality without regard to religion). No Arab regime is worth the support of any progressive. Sixthly, Arab progressive should have more faith in the Syrian people: a free Syria can be more giving in terms of struggle against Israel than the present-day regime especially if we fight simultaneously against the Asad regime and the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies. Of course, we should fight against the Asad regime on our own terms and not according to the Saudi-Qatari-Israeli design which want us to believe that real opposition to the Asad regime should translate into support for their chosen clients. But since when we progressives take marching orders from oil dynasties or from Zionist hoodlums? “

Abu Khalil is an anarchist of all things (you can’t see it but I’m rolling my eyes at the thought of a grown and educated man proclaiming anarchism) and strongly and childishly irreligious (which I bring up only as evidence that there are many fundamental things which I disagree with him upon, not as a personal criticism). That said, I think he’s pretty much on point here. The posteuring of arab radicalism aside, I don’t think there’s much worth salvaging in the Syrian regime that wouldn’t be grandfathered in into a revolutionary one. The loss of its brutish security apparati? It’s pathetic army? A lot of checks written in polemics and uncashed in action? I just don’t see the issue: I’m very much a realist and against the chaos and violence of revolution generally, but as Asad has not delivered any kind of worthwhile governance I must say that I support the mass of Syrians if a revolution is what they want. Despite Hillary Clinton’s attempts to foster a relationship with the opposition; I don’t think the US is getting anywhere with Syrian, except through Saudi agitators like the MB, and that is a not a serious threat to a/the revolution, in my estimation.

I think the US has coordinated its allies in such a way as to make it in their interests to swarm on Syria. Turkey doesn’t want to deal with a Kurdish problem, and probably does have expansionist ambitions on Northern Syria. The Saudis are undoubtedly funding Sunni agitation in Syria and from Lebanon and Iraq. Israel has been quiet, sensibly, as they do not want to taint the opposition with accusations of Zionist alignment. The US and Israel want to take down Syria, have no means to do so except through regional allies, and so cannot be so blatant as they have been in Iraq and Libya. They have to work through the Saudis, the GCC and the Turks.

That said, Syrians do have legitimate grievances against the regime, and the opposition voices are not pro-Zionist. NATO has not invaded as they did in Libya. I don’t entirely discount the uprising as illegitimate, along the lines of the Libyan resistance. N doubt there are legitimate grievances there too, but the rebels have been many, many times worse for the country than Qadaffi’s regime. The uprising there has in fact galvanized support for Qadaffi. This hasn’t been the case in Syria.

Syria has yet to demonstrate any resistance to the obvious conspiracy against it. I suppose Asad imagines that if his regime survives the uprising he will need to crawl back into Saudi arms. He supported Saudi repression in Bahrain, for example. I have little sympathy for him.

I think this is basically a case of Asad having become too isolated from the broader Zionist configuration, and so regime change is in order. I take no issue with the toppling of the regime per se, but the question is what happens afterwards? There’s no clear leadership, the US and its allies have no real ability to co-opt the uprising as they have in Libya. I am optimistic. I would hope to see something along the lines of the Egyptian situation (in fact Egypt is undergoing something strongly parallel to Syria at the moment: repression from the dictatorship and attempted co-option from Saudi-aligned MB agitators).

I'm interested in unpacking the present reality and examining the interests and weight of the various players involved, because this really has become a central factor to neocolonialism in the Middle East. Every significant actor is involved, and (I would argue) for their own interests. Also of secondary interest is the turncoat Western journalists and pundits who have become hawks irt Libya and Syria, namely Robert Fisk and Juan Cole.


[account deactivated]
[account deactivated]
Recent piece from Fisk where he complains about the lack of military intervention, (he has always spit and hissed about Syria): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/robert-fisk-this-slaughter-will-end-only-when-words-of-condemnation-are-acted-on-2334157.html

Juan Cole has been doing PR for the CIA / Al Qaida / monarchist Libyans: http://www.juancole.com/2011/03/an-open-letter-to-the-left-on-libya.html
by PR for the rebels, I meant in a informal way, unlike K Street: http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/169509-libyan-rebels-hire-washingtons-no-1-lobby-firm
babyfinland posted:

Wasn't Juan Cole actually investigated by the CIA for a smear campaign when he started to criticize the Iraq War? He flipped his allegiances so easily?
Iraq and Libya are separate issues, and he hasn't changed his mind about Iraq as far as I know, so he hasn't really switched allegiances.
[account deactivated]
im an arab frankzappaist who gets cranky on the bill maher show because of a weird jewish guy and a lady from the dallas dynasty
[account deactivated]
vidal sassoon was in the idf
Juan Cole's main goal in the Arab world was to translate Thomas Jefferson and shit into Arabic so that the Arab masses would learn about the amazing ideas of liberty and democracy and shuck off the muck of Oriental despotism, so his opposition to imperialism was always tenuous.
[account deactivated]
So uh one of the most remarkable things about the Syrian thing is the loyalty of the military and security apparati, and the refusal on the Syrian opposition's part to permit any sort of foreign co-option. Clinton and the Wahhabi ulema in Saudi Arabia have attempted to hoist a few clowns on them but it won't take, and the Syrians don't seem to feel the need to produce any specific leadership of their own.

discipline posted:
no doubt the syrians have legitimate SERIOUS grievances with the assad regime but since the protests have been contained to certain cities and not others I think the assad regime has a good chance of holding on. and if bashar has to go, I'm sure someone else in his family can play kings regent for a while, a la egypt and the situation there.

could you elaborate on the "kings regent" thing? i've heard bashar's time in office described in similar terms before, but don't know the extent to which it's true or which interests are more powerful behind the scenes. is it baath party veterans calling most of the shots or the military? or are the two entities integrated to the point where such a distinction wouldn't matter?

[account deactivated]

discipline posted:
sure, well the king's regent thing is sort of separate from the politics. first of all, the baathists always take power from the military so it is in essence something heavily rooted in the military or at least in the officer corps. this is probably why the military and security apparati has been so solid on the side of assad thus far. when you think syria structure don't think egyptian structure, think iraq.

why I did bring up egypt was the fact that the egyptians "ousted" mubarak sure, but the thing is that mubarak was just a powerful figurehead for the system of control. sure you can knock him out, but they're just gonna replace him with someone else from the military. the military controls egypt because it is the number one employer and number one recipient of foreign aid money to the tune of billions per year from USA alone. the ikhwan for instance are just some weird long-in-the-tooth shadow fraternity trying to be the moral voice of the country. they don't even have the structure or support needed to run things.

likewise, in syria, the structure is so based on baathist bureaucracy that no one else would really be prepared to run the country at this point in time without using the same structure. that's why de-baathification was such an awful idea in iraq. you kicked out the entire structure of government and military, including the millions employed by it. then you expected stuff to get done... or did you? or did you just expect foreign companies to swoop in and start sucking blood. well, anyway, all that aside, unless something ACTUALLY revolutionary occurs in syria we should expect someone who looks a lot like bashar assad to take power.

I come back to the "king's reagent" thing because the west would want someone to take provisional power while democracy NGOs get to work trying to build an actual civil society that could produce candidates and bureaucracy to replace the baathist systems. after all the modes of governance and market structures in the middle east are TERRIBLY outdated and not at all conducive to participation in a global society WINK WINK. bashar assad has been well accepted in the west before this whole thing so it's possible they described him as thus because they expected him to facilitate this kind of change. after all, he let in a lot of foreign money, has enabled the USA to re-establish a diplomatic presence there, and is now recognizing the state of israel.

thanks, this is really informative.

The Kurdish Question:

It hardly looked like the embodiment of a quiet-neighborhood policy.

First Iran's top military commander warned Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, in language that brooked no diplomacy that he faced a "grim fate" for betraying "Islamic principles."

Then the head of an influential committee in Iran's parliament announced that the de facto head of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Murat Karayilan -- a man sought by Turkey for "terrorist" activities -- had been captured by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Kandil Mountains.

Unsurprisingly, each story created a stir in the countries next door -- before promptly being denied by Iran.

Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, head of Iran's general staff, had not in fact declared that "the people's awakening cannot be suppressed" or accused Aliyev's government of "giv freedom to the Zionist regime to meddle in country's affairs," according to a statement issued by the Iranian Embassy in Baku. Nor had he accused Aliyev of giving "command to bar Islamic rules."

Such quotes -- despite their wide attribution -- were the result of a "media misunderstanding," the statement said.

So too, it seems, were reports carried by Iranian news agencies of Alaeddin Borujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, announcing the arrest of Karayilan, widely seen as the PKK's No. 2 figure behind Abdullah Ocalan, currently serving a life sentence in Turkey.

. . .

But according to Sadraddin Soltan, a Baku-based analyst on Iranian affairs, Tehran is pressuring Azerbaijan to send a signal to Baku's more powerful ally, Turkey, over one of Iran's key foreign-policy preoccupations, Syria. The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, along with the United States, bitterly criticized the brutal suppression by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- Iran's close friend -- of mass protests against his rule.

"Tehran is irritated by all these developments. Iran is closely following NATO-Azerbaijan, U.S.-Azerbaijani ties," Soltan says. "Through Firuzabadi's statements, Iran is exerting pressure on Turkey and the U.S. that it can create obstacles to their ally Azerbaijan, just as they press the Syrian regime."

The same belief has gained ground in Turkey to explain Iran's recent behavior over the recent phantom PKK arrest. The claim followed reports of recent Iranian incursions into Iraq to root out members of the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), a militant Iranian-Kurdish group (allied to the PKK) that had been mounting an effective sabotage campaign.

Even more pertinently, according to Turkish commentators, is that it preceded an anticipated offensive by Turkey in the coming weeks against PKK strongholds. Intelligence cooperation against Kurdish militants has been part of a general rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran in recent years. Knowing Turkish intentions to act against the PKK, some believe, Iran saw its chance to indulge in some underhand diplomacy.

"Iran is sending a message to Turkey," wrote Markar Esayan in "Today's Zaman." "A message saying it is willing to take action against the PKK in return for concessions by Turkey regarding the Syrian issue. To Turkey you have a dominant role in the uprisings in Syria, which is an indispensible ally to us in the region. If you give up on Syria, we will deal with the PKK together; otherwise, we will become allies with the PKK."


By all accounts, in 1998 Syria discontinued its clandestine support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist secessionist movement that aspires to create a Kurdish homeland comprising mostly of territories in Turkey’s Anatolia region. But a leading Turkish newspaper claims that, according to a classified intelligence report, Damascus has resumed its support for the PKK. The paper, Zaman, said that according to the report, Turkey’s main intelligence directorate, the MİT, has concluded that Syria has “started to support the PKK” again, thus reverting to its pre-1998 stance. It was on that year that Damascus expelled the PKK’s founder and leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who had previously been given shelter and protection in the country. A few months later, Öcalan was snatched by Turkish commandos from the hands of Greek diplomats in Nairobi, Kenya, and flown to Turkey, where he is now serving a life sentence. Following Öcalan’s expulsion, Syria, which is home to an estimated 400,000 Kurds, quietly began cooperating with Ankara against the PKK and its sister organizations operating on Syrian soil. But the MİT report cited by Zaman says that, under the fear of anti-government militancy and continuous popular and ethnic uprisings, Damascus has tried to mend relations with its Kurdish minority, and is now “providing shelter to some of the PKK’s most important leaders”. The classified report, which Zaman says gives “a highly detailed overview” of the PKK’s regional activities, also alleges that Syria has increased its security collaboration with Iran, which is also home to several thousand ethnic Kurds. According to the paper, the MİT believes that Tehran is currently engaged in military operations against the PJAK —the PKK’s Iranian arm— but completely stopped sharing intelligence with Ankara after July 16. Interestingly, that was the day when the government of Turkey voiced its first-ever strong public condemnation of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad —an event which likely prompted the change in Syria’s and Iran’s policy on the PKK. The paper also notes that things may get worse for Turkey once US troops pull from Iraq’s northern Kurdish zone. The latter is widely perceived in Turkey as a PKK shelter zone. A subsequent press release by the MİT said the Zaman news report “did not reflect the whole truth or was missing critical pieces”; but the spy agency refused to provide details.


The Sanctions:

WASHINGTON - After tiptoeing toward demanding the ouster of Bashar al-Assad over the past several months, United States President Barack Obama on Thursday finally jumped over the line with his first explicit call for the Syrian president to resign.

"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."

Obama's statement was followed by the imposition of sweeping economic sanctions, including a freeze on all Syrian state assets under US jurisdiction and a total ban on US companies and citizens conducting any business with Damascus.

Because US commercial relations with Syria are negligible, however, administration officials said they hoped Washington's latest steps would be replicated by the European Union (EU), whose economic ties with Damascus - particularly in the energy field - are far more significant, when its senior diplomatic officials meet in Brussels on Friday.

. . .

Since April, both the US and the EU have imposed sanctions, including asset freezes, against key members of the Assad regime, including Assad himself, and its most influential supporters. They have also worked together in a number of multilateral fora, including the Security Council, to both isolate Damascus diplomatically and shine a harsh spotlight on its repression.

Until Thursday, however, they had declined to call explicitly for Assad to step down for a variety of reasons, including a combination of hopes that he would follow through on his many promises to carry out far-reaching reforms and of fears that his departure would set the stage for even greater bloodshed and possibly sectarian civil war.

Despite constant pressure from neo-conservatives and other pro-Israel hawks who have long had Assad in their gun sights due to his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine and close ties to Iran, the administration also resisted taking a harder public line against Assad for fear that doing so would make it politically more difficult for other key powers, notably Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to move against him while making it easier for Assad to depict the opposition as being manipulated by Washington.

"There was legitimate hesitation about getting too far out in front lest regime change in Syria be seen as a specifically US project, which would not be helpful to oppositionists inside Syria," said Paul Pillar, a former top Central Intelligence Agency Middle East analyst teaching at Georgetown University.

But recent statements by the leaders of all three countries expressing exasperation with the continuing repression apparently encouraged Obama to take the leap.

In particular, Saudi King Abdullah's angry appeal 10 days ago for Assad to "stop the killing machine" - as well as his recall, along with those of several other Gulf leaders, of his ambassador in Damascus - and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's comparison this week of Assad to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were cited by senior administration officials as key indicators of a sufficient international consensus to warrant the administration's latest move.

"You know, it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," Clinton said Monday. But "if Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it."

Now that it has been said, however, it remains unclear what happens next. Landis and other experts stressed that sweeping economic sanctions of the kind being imposed by western powers this week would not necessarily be sufficient to bring about the regime's collapse.

"We can't predict how long this transition will take," admitted one senior official who briefed reporters after Obama's announcement. "Nothing about it is likely to be easy. But we're certain that Assad is on the way out."

Indeed, independent experts predicted a long struggle that could increase the bloodshed and quite possibly precipitate a civil war.

"The regime seems to have the willpower, incentive, and means to stick around for a while," according to David Lesch, a Middle East expert at Trinity University in Texas, writing on Thursday in foreignpolicy.com.

"None of this changes the fact that the Syrian opposition is extremely young and extremely fragmented, and the Syrian regime is united and has the military behind it," said Landis, who publishes the much-read syriacomment.com blog. "Its firepower remains as strong as it was yesterday, and the opposition's firepower has not improved because of this."

"Ultimately, if don't work in causing defections within the military and the business elite, then it becomes a military problem, and you're on a slippery slope. This is what happened in Iraq; this is what happened in Libya," he noted.

Pillar also predicted a "long and turbulent process", noting that the opposition to the regime "has not yet erected credible structures that could be the basis for assuming power in the foreseeable future."

"I think Assad's days are numbered, but one ought to be concerned about just how long and difficult a process it will be before there's anything remotely resembling stability in Syria," he told IPS.

"It is hard to conceive of an incentive for Assad himself or other insiders in the regime to voluntarily relinquish power no matter how difficult a squeeze the sanctions have placed on them and on Syria as a whole," he added.

What he called the "likely coming conflict in Syria" could have a "very strong sectarian dimension, given that an Alawite-dominated regime will be replaced by what almost certainly will be a Sunni-dominated regime." That, in turn, could exacerbate sectarian animosities and tensions across the region, he noted.


Edited by babyfinland ()

On Hezbollah's Shi'a / Syrian-Iranian Sectarianism:


Lebanese army intelligence has intercepted a covert shipment of 1,000 assault rifles, reportedly destined for the city of Baniyas in Syria. According to Arabic daily Al-Akhbar, Army investigators uncovered ties between the smugglers and the political entourage of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

. . .

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television identified the smugglers as Wassam and Samir Tamim. They have reportedly confessed to running over 30 arms-smuggling operations from Marina to Baniyas with the assistance of Mohammad Kabbara, a member of the Al-Mustaqbal parliamentary bloc . Al-Manar stated that the center of operations was Kabbara’s farm in northern Lebanon, adding that this was also a transit point for Salafist fighters traveling to the Syrian city of Homs.

The Syrian army claimed last week that in recent fighting near Homs it has detained hundreds of Salafi fighters (reportedly including Afghans) with Lebanese documents, whose transfer to Syria was facilitated by Kabbara.


The guy in charge of the Syrian National Council worked for the Saudis for years

Interesting comments from this poster from Damascus on syriacmoment:

Did Syria Use Tanks and Gun Boats to Shell Hama and Latakia?by Ammar Shami (Not the author’s real name. He lives in Damascus.)
For Syria Comment, August 20, 2011

Did Syria use tanks and gunboats to shell their own cities? This is what a number of activists with obvious policy objectives have been telling Western reporters. But do Syrian authorities really have to use such unbridled force? Making claims that the Syrian army and navy shelled Latakia and Hama with gunboats and tanks may rally international support for the rebel cause, but distorting the truth can backfire. Hama has recently been visited by a delegation of foreign journalists. I was waiting to read their reports and see the newsreel of Hama’s devastation from “shelling.” The silence has been deafening. French and US journalists were included among those who traveled to Hama. So far there is no evidence of artillery being used in either city, whether from tanks or ships.

We have all heard about “shelling” and I put shelling into quotes because for the life of me, I couldn’t find any. I looked up over a dozen videos from YouTube. I searched for “Syrian army shelling” and I went through the results expecting to see cratered buildings, great chunks of concrete dangling from twisted re-bar and the sort of desolate moonscape that I had grown accustomed to watching the news after the US military swept through cities such as Falouja and al-Qaim hunting militant gangs and terrorists.

When I click on a YouTube clip titled, “Syrian Tanks shell Hama,” call me crazy, but I actually expect to see some shelling. Everyone knows what shelling looks like. The tanks stop, they move their turret and fire a huge projectile towards a target, the tank flings back a few meters and a loud explosion is heard, dust flies everywhere, the end. None of what I just described is to be seen. Even though, these days, everyone has a video camera on their phone, or a video camera. Yet for some reason, the exact moment of shelling is never captured, why would the word “shelling footage” be in the title of those clips? And boats? Shelling the coast, bombarding Latakia? The Syrian army might be aggressive, but only an idiot would use a boat to shell land on the coast. Those boats aren’t state of the art, they will do an effective job when they are asked to bring down an entire block, but that’s not what happened.

The only “possible” shelling I could see was of the mosque in Deir-El-Zoar. Mosques have been known to be used as great sniping and scouting locations, not to mention great for hiding weapons. If this mosque was used for that purpose, I wouldn’t be very surprised. Those tactics from Iraq are showing up all over Syria. More important is the coverage this video has seen. During the start of the events I visited my dentist in Bab-touma, a Christian part of town. The same day I was there a group of armed men stopped in front of the church and sprayed it with bullets. This story never made it to the news even though I saw the bullet holes with my own eyes.

Some of the videos displayed on YouTube of Hama show long plumes of black smoke twisting up above the city. These are used to prove that the city was shelled, but in all likelihood the cause of the black smoke is the burning of tires. People in Hama blocked roads with cinder blocks and burning tires. Most people who have never seen warfare would not know the difference between burning tires, shelling and buildings being ripped apart by heavy caliber shells. My father who served in the 1973 war has a good idea of what the plumes of smoke from shell fire look like. He was the first to point it out to me. “Tanks don’t make long plumes of black smoke, burning tires do,” he explained.

I’m guessing that the foreign journalists did visit Hama, and they did see damage and lots of bullet holes and caused by army the military, because it did shoot up parts of the town. I cannot for the life of me find any evidence that Hama was shelled, however. I do believe that lots of live fire was used, and much of it had to have come from the machine guns placed on the top of the tanks. Tanks serve as effective troop carriers in urban warfare. They provide lots of armor for soldiers moving down the streets, but so far, the Syrian Army does not seem to have used them to shell the city or take down snipers. Jets have not been called in to drop 2,000 pound bombs or even 500 pound ordinance as has become standard practice in hunting rebels in Afghanistan or Iraq. Helicopter gun ship are not being depended to pound safe houses with cannon fire. And the Syrian Navy did not bombard the coast with gunships.

I don’t want to defend the Syrian Army’s handling of this uprising, anymore than I want to excuse the killing of my innocent countrymen. All the same, it is very frustrating to watch the international press repeat the spin of five or six activists living abroad, who have every incentive to paint Syrian soldiers as monsters. They want to win adherents for their cause by demonizing Syrians who have not joined them. US policy makers made bad mistakes because of the cheer-leading by the world press in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Ahmed Chalabi and his cousin were able to play the West and excite its fears about Iraq’s possession of nukes and chemical weapons. This came at a tremendous cost to everyone concerned because reporters thought they were doing good by repeating tall tales. One got fired, as I recall. But most turned into critics of the war they helped start.

Why haven’t any of the international reporters who have visited Hama spoken out about whether Syrians shelled the city with tanks and artillery? Numerous articles were written about how the suppression of Hama in 2011 was a replay of the terrible destruction of the city in 1982 under Hafiz al-Assad. Certainly there are parallels to be made, but shelling the city with tanks is not one of them. Why can’t any of those reporters – and there are many – just come clean and write an investigative report about the evidence – or lack of it – for the shelling of Hama and Latakia? Reporting on the situation in Syria incorrectly can have many consequences. The government could decide to use heavier guns if it believes that the world already believes it is using them. Foreign governments could push ahead with policies that will fail because they are based on falsehoods or an improper grasp on reality.

Meanwhile it seems like the opposition is debating about the formation of an armed wing a la Libya because NATO wants to do something but won't invade outright and would likely lend air support, again a la Libya


The Economic Origins of Syria's Uprising

A banker stacks packed Syrian lira bills at the Central Bank in Damscus. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)
By: Nabil Marzouq

Published Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why have socioeconomic demands been largely absent from the agenda of the popular protest movement in Syria? Does this mean that the uprisings were not fuelled by tangible socioeconomic needs or were these secondary and non-essential concerns for Syrians?

The poet Ibrahim Qashoush captures the demands of the Syrian people with the phrase “Syria wants freedom,” the rallying cry of protests across the country. The suggestion that the absence of individual and collective freedoms is the common root of social and economic problems has become almost axiomatic and ingrained in the popular consciousness. Indeed, slogans demanding social justice and an end to corruption disappeared within a month of the uprising. This reflects the dialectic of development and freedom expressed in Indian economist Amartya Sen’s notion of development as freedom, where development is seen as the free choice of peoples and a tool for enhancing their freedom. However, protest slogans do not detract from the reality of the socioeconomic crisis that has unfolded in Syria over the past 5 years.

In the years preceding 2005, the Syrian regime – in efforts to justify restrictions on freedom and oppression – carefully nurtured a ‘social development’ rhetoric centred on the role of the state, the public sector, justice, and social programs. Although social programs have steadily decreased since the mid-1980s, what was left of them has been removed with the unequivocal adoption of free market mechanisms in 2005. These ‘trickle down’ economic policies and zealous liberalization efforts have only served to entrench the power and influence of a select group of politically influential nouveau riche.

This process was accompanied by the persistence of an authoritarian system that had become even fiercer. What would have been called ‘criticism’ in the 1990s had become a crime by the early 21st century, subjecting perpetrators to an array of public and private censorship measures. The government’s irresponsible dealings with thousands of Syrian families displaced by years of drought, mainly in the northeast, further sullied its image. With the start of the uprising, the rupture between protesters and the regime became apparent.

So why are we Syrians regressing and becoming poorer while others get richer? This question was not addressed by public and economic administrators of the country, who drove forward economic liberalization policies.

Syria’s social and economic crisis in recent years has also been laid bare, as economic growth has been sluggish, unstable, and unable to meet the needs of a growing population. Growth and investment has been increasingly concentrated in the trade, finance, real estate, and service sectors. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector continues to contract, with investments declining from 5 percent in 2005 to about 3 percent in 2009. Similarly, investments in industry have dwindled by half a percentage point and growth in the industrial and mining sector has been extremely weak due to decreasing oil production and the depletion of reserves. Moreover, the lack investment in technology and environmentally sustainable industry in line with international standards has led to major deficits and slowed productivity in these sectors.

Economic liberalization policies exacerbated the crisis of productivity, as well as the associated social problems of unemployment, poverty, and the lowering of living standards. The annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate between 2005 and 2009 reached 5.6 percent, which at first glance seems an acceptable figure. But fluctuations from one year to the next were considerable – 16.5 percent in 2006 compared to 1.2 percent in 2008 and 3.2 percent in 2009. This points to the economy’s reliance on the rapid expansion of the banking and insurance sectors, for which annual growth rates stood at 9 percent each, and trade, where growth neared 15 percent. Meanwhile, industrial growth did not surpass 1.7 percent and agriculture was contracting at an average 0.5 percentage points annually.

These resulted from the policies pursued by the government at the behest of international financial institutions and in preparation for the state’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the signing of the EU Association Agreement. The state retreated from investments in productive sectors of the economy, failed to address the problems of public sector industries, and left productive investment to the local and foreign private sector. As a result, the level of investment in the national economy was insufficient to sustain required growth rates – the share of gross investment was 18 percent in 2008 and 21 percent in 2009.

These investment patterns resulted in skewed GDP growth and contributed to the rising demand for real estate and the ensuing price increases. Powerful figures in the regime seeking to cash in have purchased or commandeered lands, provoking the ire of small landowners who saw in the uprising an opportunity to express their rejection of these injustices. Years of drought were accompanied by economic liberalization policies, including IMF-recommended subsidy cuts to reduce the budget deficit, particularly for fuel, power, cement, and fertilizers (insecticide and other agricultural subsidies had already been scrapped). Producers were suddenly faced with exponential cost increases and lacked access to funding or credit facilities. Some were forced to farm less of their lands than before and others abandoned their crops altogether.

The agricultural sector in Syria is comprised of mainly small- to medium-sized farms and a handful of larger estates, which are usually divided over time among large families through inheritance. A mere 28.5 percent of farmlands are irrigated, with the rest farmed without the use of water. More than 50 percent of irrigated land is watered by wells, most of which are unlicensed. The government requires that well licenses be renewed annually to allow for the assessment of groundwater levels, which determines the renewal or termination of licenses. However, this has created opportunities for extortion, allowing security personnel or provincial officials – including some provincial governors – to levy royalties from farmers, rendering them impoverished and resentful. Such practices have been a direct factor for seething resentment in the countryside, but the crisis has more deep-seated causes.

People of the Syrian countryside face the effects of poverty, declining education standards, unemployment, inadequate public services and facilities, and a failing, inequitable development process. Emigration to urban areas and large cities provided an outlet between the 1970s and 1990s, but sluggish growth and the inability of cities to absorb the new arrivals spawned slums at the outskirts of these cities. These areas are packed with young people aspiring towards a better life and in search of decent work opportunities. These people can be put to many uses, including, more recently, as thugs to suppress protests. On the other hand, the countryside has accumulated swathes of depressed communities, where outward migration inside Syria is severely restricted and emigration abroad has become increasingly difficult. The sum of these factors has led to frustration and a sense of injustice in mostly rural marginalized areas.

A Syrian street vendor displays women's shoes for sale in a street in Damascus, two days ahead of Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (Photo: AP - Muzaffar Salman)

The Syrian social and economic crisis has slowly escalated since the new millennium. Increasing poverty and unemployment and large population increases in recent decades are partly to blame. The average population growth surpassed 3.3 percent annually even in the mid-1990s. These averages have steadily declined since, resulting in significant demographic shifts; in the last decade, the proportion of children under 15 years constituted 37.9 percent of the population in 2009 down from 44.8 percent in 1998. Similarly, the working age population (15 to 65 years) now represents 58.3 percent of the population compared to 52.3 percent in 1998.

These shifts were accompanied by advances in educational standards, especially for those between the ages of 15 and 25 (many areas claim universal literacy for this group). Meanwhile, the average population growth increase in the 1990s reached 476,000 people per year – the majority of whom began to join the workforce towards the end of the current decade. The labor market has been unable to absorb this bulging workforce at the current pace of economic growth, so many have entered the informal economy or remain unemployed. The official Labor Market Survey estimated unemployment as between 8 and 8.5 percent, while independent estimates surpass 14 percent. According to the Syrian Central Bureau for Statistics, more than 900,000 Syrian nationals have permanently left their country over the past five years, amounting to an estimated 200,000 emigrants per year.

A severe development crisis became apparent at the start of the 2000s. Syrian society neared demographic maturity and people became more educated and knowledgeable. Institutional structures stagnated and the economy sputtered under the leadership of the leading party. Their archaic mindset and leadership relied on exclusion, enslavement, dependency, and sycophancy. This bred an unjust and corrupt culture that was unacceptable to a generation exposed to satellite television and the Internet, a generation aware of its rights. This crisis stirred society’s latent sense of oppression and persecution.

When Syrians look around them, they are deeply disappointed. Having once surpassed Arab and non-Arab neighbours in living standards and development. According to the 2010 Human Development Report, Syria now ranks 111 out of 169 countries on the Human Development Index, lower than most Arab countries, with the exception of Morocco, Yemen, Mauritania, and Sudan. The average Jordanian’s share of the GDP in Jordan is 1.5 times greater than a Syrian’s share of his national GDP. In Lebanon it is double and in Turkey it is four times. These figures are even more distressing in view of Syria’s abundant and diverse resources, their higher education standards, and other achievements.

So why are we Syrians regressing and becoming poorer while others get richer? This question was not addressed by public and economic administrators of the country, who drove forward economic liberalization policies and entered into unfavorable free trade agreements with Turkey, Arab states, and other countries. These agreements mean the ruin of small enterprise, the transition of former industrialists to traders, and an exposure of the lack of competitiveness of the Syrian economy.

Middle and lower class citizens have bore the brunt of these economic failures and the skewing of economic policies towards the rich. The budget deficit and depletion of resources were addressed by cutting subsidies to the bare minimum and reducing spending on health care and education. These cuts come in the absence of adequate universal health care and follow the privatization of the health sector. The government has also begun referring public sector employees to a health insurance scheme run by recently created insurance companies. This process has effectively raised the costs of treatment and health care for citizens. This, at a time when direct taxes on profits and income have been reduced to a minimum, the lowest rates compared to neighboring Arab countries, and with high rates of tax evasion that the government has been unable limit over the past five years. The grossly uneven distribution of the national income has concentrated incomes and capital in the hands of a limited few. The share of wages from the national income was less than 33 percent in 2008-2009, compared to nearly 40.5 per cent in 2004, meaning that profits and rents command more than 67 percent of the GDP. This measure does not exceed 50 percent in the most liberal capitalist states.

Despite grave concerns expressed by several Syrian economists and local groups regarding these economic policies, the government’s callous and careless posture towards these demands has fostered despair among youth. Young people have transformed their personal agony into collective anger and rejection of the present situation and future prospects that offer them no hope of decent living standards. They have made the conscious connection between the regime’s repressive governance mechanism, corruption, and the difficult living conditions they endure.

Nabil Marzouq is a Syrian economist and researcher

Low Income
According to the latest Syrian household income and expenditure survey conducted by the Central Bureau for Statistics (2009-2010), the average household expenditure is approximately 31,000 Syrian pounds per month (approximately USD 653), more than SYP 14,000 (USD 295) of which is spent on food. The survey indicates that 63 percent of household expenditure falls below this threshold, but the average expenditure is not commensurate with the average wage. The 2009 labor market survey indicates that nearly 48 percent of the workforce earns less than SYP 9000 (USD 189) per month. The percentage of Syrians earning more than SYP 30,000 (USD 632) per month remains unclear. Despite gaps in the data, these figures are representative because they cover nearly 61 percent of the workforce. The evidence suggests that many social groups suffer difficult socioeconomic conditions, including wage earners and young entrants into the labor market. This situation is exacerbated by the marginalization of women and their exclusion from the labour market, despite the fact that they are more educated and qualified than ever.

Source URL: http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/economic-origins-syrias-uprising

Long story short people are pissed about neoliberalism more than anything else

There's been a lot of talk about Iran's 180 on support for the Baathists in Syria.

Asia Times provides some good analysis:

(. . .)

As the noose gradually tightens around Assad's neck, there is increasing indication that influential voices in Tehran are beginning to think about contingency planning. But the essential problem remains Iran's inability to imagine a Syria without the existing power structures and supporting ideology.

A recent interview with the well-informed and well-travelled Iranian lawmaker Sirous Borna Baldaji, which appeared in the influential Iranian Diplomacy website, is indicative of the depth of confusion that prevails in Tehran. Entitled "If Assad goes the Salafis will seize power", the interview is based on Baldaji's extensive recent field research in Syria.

The latter's insinuation that the cutting edge - if not the controlling brain - of the Syrian demonstrators are hardline Salafi extremists, is not only indicative of poor research but lack of imagination in terms of viewing a post-Assad Syria.

Baldaji's argument appears to be that once these so-called Salafis seize control of the reins of power in Damascus they will proceed to limit ties with Iran and cut off the vital support line to Hezbollah. It is an argument that is not only devoid of a deep understanding of Syria's strategic profile, but one that takes insufficient stock of broader regional dynamics.

In view of these regional dynamics, namely the empowerment of potentially pro-Iranian Islamists in Cairo and the emergence of a volatile and inexperienced regime in Tripoli, Iran should look to cultivating deeper ties with these states and by extension de-emphasizing the relationship with non-state actors.

The resistance axis needs to be rethought and reconfigured to adapt to emerging political and strategic developments and ultimately tied to a more lucid definition of Iranian national interests.

If Iran's primary national interest in the region is the expulsion of foreign military forces from the Persian Gulf area, then the emergence of more democratic regimes, whose chief sensitivity is their own public opinion, is supportive of this long-term strategic goal.

From this point of view, the downfall of Assad, however unlikely it may appear at this stage, is not necessarily the disaster imagined by many in Tehran's policymaking circles.


Long live the Free Officers Movement