Saturday, 31 March 2012

Why Annan will keep running around in circles

Kofi Annan and Ammar al-Qurabi

Kofi Annan’s Syria troubleshooting mission is doomed. The opinion is shared by prominent Syrian activist Ammar al-Qurabi, renowned Gulf author Mohammad Al Rumaihi and leading American-Lebanese political analyst Raghida Dergham.
Qurabi, a trained dentist who founded the Arab Human Rights Organization in Syria, tells today’s Beirut daily al-Joumhouria in an exclusive interview: “Annan’s initiative will fall flat without doubt. The regime will abort it. I have no doubt the regime will collapse by simply withdrawing the army from urban areas and respecting the right to demonstrate peacefully. This is because people are adamant on wanting (President Bashar al-) Assad to stand trial for crimes against humanity.”
According to Qurabi, “The regime can’t commit and implement the (Annan peace) plan. The regime previously endorsed the Arab peace initiative calling for reform and dialogue… I am afraid Annan would metamorphose into a new Dabi,” a reference to controversial Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Dabi who headed the Arab League's observer mission to Syria that turned into a fiasco.
Qurabi says, “Having already seen an Arab Dabi, we can expect a bigger Dabi with international cover. In any case, the regime will certainly not commit to any of his plan’s six points...”
The six points have been encapsulated as follows:
1.     UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians
2.     All parties to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and implement a daily two-hour humanitarian pause
3.     Authorities to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons
4.     Authorities to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists
5.    Authorities to respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully
6.     Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people
Rumaihi, a Kuwaiti professor of political sociology who has published more than 20 books on social and cultural change in the Gulf and Arab world, writes today in a news analysis for the Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat that Annan might make his six points palatable to the regime. “But the issue is not that simple. The regime in Syria has mastered Iran’s time-wasting recipe.” Proof is it has intensified, instead of scaled down, its crackdown on civilians.
“Annan’s plan is not only difficult to implement but impossible,” Rumaihi opines. “Acceptance of any of the points would undermine the regime. Its acceptance of more than one point would prove fatal. So can you imagine the consequences of the regime accepting all six points?”
Accordingly, what purpose does the Annan mission serve?
“A twofold purpose,” says Rumaihi. One, it helps Russia save face in that it does not require Assad to stand down. Two, it gives the regime time to stifle the opposition.
Filing from New York, Raghida Dergham concurs in her weekly column for pan-Arab al-Hayat, that Annan’s mission helps Damascus stall to buy time and Washington stonewall the Syrian opposition until after the U.S. presidential elections in November.

Saudi “religious police” wows theater actresses

The comedy's producer, playwright and actresses face the camera

You wouldn’t have guessed – not in a million years.
Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), or “religious police,” has won the hearts of non-other than an all-female theater cast.
The troupe of five female actresses – Sarah el-Jaber, Revan Kenaan, Manal Issa, Lauren Issa and Samar Faraj -- has just finished performing three nights at a Saudi women’s theater in the oasis city of Ha’il.
The three performances of the female comedy “Shakhtak Shakhtouk” – two meaningless voodoo words -- were part of weeklong heritage, folklore, music and culture and arts activities highlighting the annual Ha’il Rally.
The Saudi daily al-Watan quotes producer Rania Zaki as saying she “fantasized” the words “Shakhtak Shakhtouk” for the comedy by playwright Amal Hussein.  The reason is the comical recourse of women in many Arab societies to witchcrafts, sorcerers and fortunetellers to supposedly address marital, spinsterhood, infertility, pregnancy, envy and evil eye concerns.
Iraqi Kurdish actress Lauren Issa tells al-Watan the cast found CPVPV staff “kind,” “very courteous and polite” and “extremely helpful -- which isn’t what we expected or what we had been made to believe.”

Friday, 30 March 2012

Watchdogs confirm killing of media pair in Syria

World Press Freedom Day poster
Two media watchdogs have sadly given an affirmative answer to the question I raised in my morning post of March 27: Have two more journalist been killed in Syria?
Two freelance journalists, including a Briton of Algerian origin, have been killed at the Syrian-Turkish border, Reporters Without Borders said yesterday.
"Reporters Without Borders condemns the killing of two freelance journalists who were shot dead after an attack by Syrian forces on a group of about 50 people trying to enter Syria at Darkush on the border with Turkey three days ago," it said in a statement.
"Immediately after the offensive, the two journalists, aged between 28 and 32, were reported to have returned to the scene to collect their equipment. A Syrian army vehicle opened fire on them, killing both," it added.
According to Reporters Without Borders, one of the journalists was Walid Blidi, "a British national of Algerian origin. The nationality of his colleague, Nassim Terreri, has yet to be established. A third journalist reported to have been wounded in the attack was taken to hospital in Turkish border town of Antakya.”
The media watchdog said, “The journalists planned to make a documentary in the village of Idlib, a hotbed of the protest movement that has been the target of a violent crackdown by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.”
It said the tragedy occurred a day after the murder of Kurdish citizen journalist Jawan Mohammed Qatana on March 25 in Derbassiyeh, north of the eastern city of al-Hassakeh.
According to Reporters Without Borders, “Citizens and activists have taken over the baton from professional journalists unable to enter Syria or who are prevented from carrying out their work. They are playing an essential role in gathering and distributing information…
“The lawyer and blogger Rudy Othman was among the new detainees. He was arrested on Hamra Street in Damascus on March 15 for the third time since the start of the protests. The blogger and activist Jamal al-Omas was arrested at the Lebanese border the same day as he returned from Beirut.
The blogger Mohammed Abu Hajar was arrested in the Mediterranean-coast city of Tartus on March 14 because of what he has been writing in his blog ‘Mazaj’…”
Meanwhile, two Turkish journalists -– Adem Özköse, a reporter for the magazine Gerçek Hayat and the daily Milat, and cameraman Hamit Coşkun -– who have been missing in Syria for three weeks are being held by militias loyal to the Syrian army and are in good condition, their Syrian guide told Turkey’s Anatalia News Agency Thursday.
“I was in custody with Adem and Hamit for 10 days before they released me. They are both alive, and they are fine,” said Baha’eddin Sharm, the Syrian guide.
Sharm said around 50 Syrian militia detained him and the journalists on March 8 near the town of Binnish close to Idlib and kept them in Al-Fua village. Sharm said they were taken hostage at a house, where they were given bread and water, and added that some people believed to be members of the Syrian intelligence services had interrogated them.
“They wanted to hand us over to Syrian intelligence, but they were unable to do that because the roads were blocked by opposition forces and they were afraid of losing us to them,” Sharm said.
The two journalists had arrived in Idlib near the Turkish border to cover the violence and make a documentary, said Sharm, adding that the pair had asked him to guide them in the country. 

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Egypt’s next president and Arab democracy

A presidential election will be held in Egypt on May 23 and 24, with a run-off – if one is needed – slated for June 16 and 17.
Egypt’s semi-official Middle East News Agency (MENA) earlier this month estimated the number of people who had expressed their “plan” to run for the country’s highest office at 1,103!
But according to newly introduced electoral legislation, a candidate to be admissible needs to secure the endorsement of either 30 legislators or 30,000 eligible voters or be nominated by a political party that holds at least one seat in parliament before April 8.
So far, the number of hopefuls who put in their official candidature documents to the Higher Political Election Committee is still reasonable. They include, among others:
  • Amr Moussa, former foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League
  • Hafez Salah Abu Ismail, an ultra-conservative Salafist and TV host
  • Abdul Moneim Abul-Fotouh, secretary-general of the Arab Medical Union and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s guidance bureau who decided to run independently and was then removed from the organization's ranks
  • Buthaina Kamel, a political activist in Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution
  • Ahmad Shafiq, air marshal and prime minister under Hosni Mubarak
  • Khalid Ali, former head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) and founding member of Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC)
  • Mohammad Salim El-Awa, former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and head of the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue

More and more names of potential candidates creep up all the time, including Ayman Nour, who heads the liberal El-Ghad Thawra Party, Intel tsar Omar Suleiman, controversial lawyer Mortada Mansour and many others.
All this led me to my preferred Arab author and commentator Samir Atallah, who has been writing a short daily column for the Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat for the past 27 years.
To my mind, his Arabic writing style is inimitable. But here is how I would phrase in English his Arabic narrative of Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections:
Egyptians laugh – laughing is their second godsend after the Nile – at the number of candidates for president. There are more than a thousand of them from both sexes. Their CVs vary from the most qualified to the repentant swindler.
Many people, in Egypt and elsewhere, are offended by the “candidacies farce.” In truth, we need to decide the root cause of the farce. Is it in 500 or so people discovering they are entitled to run and mobilize supporters? Or is it in nobody being able to run except the one-person who becomes sole candidate, then first-term, second-term and permanent winner?
The first alternative is laughable the second makes you weep. Ayman Nour was wrongly imprisoned because he dared to run for president (against Hosni Mubarak). In Arab presidential systems, (Nour’s move) is tantamount to heresy.
The wily Yaser Arafat not only allowed a candidate to run against him for president (in January 1996), but his challenger was a woman (Samiha Khalil), whose name hardly anyone remembered. That’s how he gave the impression that Palestine was democratic, although he controlled all Palestine’s threads with the baby finger of his left hand.
The Arab presidential system does not tolerate either imagination or hope. That’s why the presidency is wrested.
In Egypt, a stay at the presidential palace was for life. It’s now until bedridden.
In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali cut short Habib Bourguiba’s “president for life” term (voted by the Tunisian National Assembly in March 1975) and took it himself -- until the fruit vendor (Mohamed Bouazizi) came along to spark his eviction.
In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after three decades as president in favor of Saleh Abdullah Ali.
In Syria, the constitution changed “president for life” to “president for 28 years, but extendable forevermore.”
In Iraq, the prime minister can extend his term at will in keeping with America’s democratic legacy preceding the Marines’ pullout.
In the days leading to Congo’s 1960 independence, a popular joke was that as soon as the Congolese heard the words “independence is on the way,” large crowds headed to the airport to welcome “him.”
Democracy is on the way to the Arab world. One of its preliminary sign in Tunisia is the call (made by the Infitah Party) for new legislation allowing each married man to have a sexual concubine, “if only to deal with such emergencies as marital troubles or menstrual periods.”
More than a thousand Egyptians contemplate running for president to make up for their 60-year deprivation from running to head any municipal council in any Upper Egypt village.
Democracy is a long, arduous and complex process. It took American democracy no less than two centuries to give Black citizens their civil rights…

U.S. Senators file hard-hitting Syria resolution

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and John Hoeven (R-ND) late Wednesday unveiled a Congressional resolution condemning the government of Syria for crimes against humanity and supporting the right of the people of Syria to be safe and to defend themselves.

The resolution backs calls by Arab leaders to support the people of Syria “through the provision of weapons and other material support” and recognizes that "establishment of safe havens for people from Syria, as contemplated by governments in the Middle East, would be an important step to save Syrian lives."

Following is the full text of the resolution:

Condemning the Mass Atrocities committed by the Government of Syria and Supporting the right of the people of Syria to be safe and to defend themselves

Whereas, in March 2011, large-scale peaceful demonstrations began to take place in Syria against the authoritarian rule of Bashar al-Assad;  

Whereas the Bashar al-Assad regime responded to protests by launching a campaign of escalating and indiscriminate violence, including gross human rights violations, use of force against civilians, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary executions, sexual violence, and interference with access to medical treatment;  

Whereas demonstrators initially demanded political reform, but under sustained violent attack by the Government of Syria, now demand a change in the Syrian regime;  

Whereas forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are increasingly and indiscriminately employing heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, to attack civilian population centers;  

Whereas, on November 23, 2011, the United Nations-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported that, “crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape or other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances of persons and other inhumane acts of a similar character have occurred in different locations in Syria since March 2011” and that, “the Syrian Arab Republic bears responsibility for these crimes and violations”;  

Whereas, on February 22, 2012, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic found in a subsequent report that “commanding officers and officials at the highest level of government bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations”;  

Whereas, on March 15, 2012, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that “well over 8,000 people” have been killed because of the “brutal oppression” by authorities in Syria and called the status quo in Syria “indefensible”;  

Whereas on March 27, 2012, the United Nations reported that the death toll in Syria had climbed to “more than 9,000”;  

Whereas at least 3,000 people have been killed in Syria in 2012 alone;  

Whereas, on October 2, 2011, a broad-based coalition of Syrian opposition leaders announced the establishment of the Syrian National Council (SNC), calling for the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the formation of a civil, pluralistic, and democratic state in Syria;  

Whereas, on February 24, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Syrian National Council (SNC) “a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change” and an “effective representative for the Syrian people with governments and international organizations”;  

Whereas growing numbers of people in Syria, under continued and escalating assault by the Assad regime, have taken up arms to defend themselves and organized armed resistance under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA);  

Whereas the leaders of the Free Syrian Army have rejected sectarianism;

Whereas on December 6, 2011, the Syrian National Council issued a statement affirming that the Free Syrian Army “deserve[s] the backing of all supporters of human rights in Syria” and applauding the decision of FSA officers to “risk their lives and those of their families because they believe in Syria and have lost faith in the Assad doctrine”;  

Whereas, on March 12, 2012, the Syrian National Council, through its spokesperson, called for “military intervention by Arab and Western countries to protect civilians” in Syria, and endorsed the arming of the Free Syrian Army;  

Whereas, on March 16, 2012, opposition activists inside Syria staged protests calling for “immediate military intervention by the Arabs and Muslims, followed by the rest of the world”;  

Whereas, on February 24, 2012, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Saud bin Feisal, called providing weapons to the Syrian opposition “an excellent idea...because they have to protect themselves”;  

Whereas, on February 27, 2012, the Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, said of the Syrian opposition, “I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves.”;  

Whereas, on March 1, 2012, the parliament of Kuwait voted overwhelmingly on a resolution calling on the Government of Kuwait to support the Syrian opposition, including by providing weapons;  

Whereas, on March 16, 2012, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said that the Government of Turkey was considering setting up a “security” or “buffer zone” along its border with Syria;

Whereas, on December 22, 2010, the Senate passed Con. Res 71, a bipartisan resolution recognizing that it is in the U.S. National interest to prevent and mitigate acts of genocide and other mass atrocities against civilians.

Whereas, on August 4, 2011, President Barack Obama issued Presidential Study Directive-10 (PSD-10), stating, ‘Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.’  

Whereas on May 18, 2011, the President signed Executive Order 13573 targeting senior Syrian government officials due to their government’s continuing escalation of violence against the Syrian people;

Whereas on April 29, 2011, the President signed Executive Order 13572 imposing sanctions on certain individuals and entities in the Annex to the Order and providing the authority to designate persons responsible for human rights abuses in Syria, including those related to repressing the Syrian people;  

Whereas, on February 4, 2012, the President stated that Bashar al-Assad “has no right to lead Syria and has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community”;  

Whereas, on February 17, 2012, the United States Senate, passed S. Res.379 stating that the “gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Government of Syria against the people of Syria represent a grave risk to regional peace and stability”;  

Whereas, on February 28, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee concerning Bashar al- Assad that, “…based on the definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category”;  

Whereas, on March 1, 2012, Admiral James Stavridis, commander of United States European Command and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, during testimony before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate, agreed with the statement that “the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence” would “help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power”;  

Whereas, on March 6, 2012, General James Mattis, commander of United States Central Command, testified before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate that Bashar al-Assad will “continue to employ heavier and heavier weapons on his people”  

Whereas, on March 6, 2012, General Mattis testified before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate that there is “a full throated effort by Iran to keep Assad there and oppressing his own people” in Syria, including “providing the kinds of weapons that are being used right now to suppress the opposition,” as well as “listening capability, eavesdropping capability...and experts who I could only say are experts at oppressing”;  

Whereas, on March 6, 2012, General Mattis testified before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate that the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime would represent “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years”; and

Whereas the continuing gross human rights violations against the people of Syria represent a grave risk to regional peace and stability: Now, therefore, be it  

Resolved, That the Senate 

    (1) condemns the mass atrocities and severe human rights abuses being perpetrated against the people of Syria by Bashar al-Assad and his followers;  

    (2) recognizes that the people of Syria have an inherent right to defend themselves against the campaign of violence being conducted by the Assad regime;  

    (3) supports calls by Arab leaders to provide the people of Syria with the means to defend themselves against Bashar al-Assad and his forces, including through the provision of weapons and other material support, and calls on the President to work closely with regional partners to implement these efforts effectively;  

    (4) urges the President to take all necessary precautions to ensure that any support for the Syrian opposition does not benefit individuals in Syria who are aligned with al Qaeda or associated movements, or who have committed human rights abuses;  

    (5) affirms that the establishment of safe havens for people from Syria, as contemplated by governments in the Middle East, would be an important step to save Syrian lives and to help bring an end to Mr. Assad’s killing of civilians in Syria, and calls on the President to consult urgently and thoroughly with regional allies on whether, how, and where to create such safe havens;

   (6) urges the President, as part of an international effort to hold senior officials in Syria accountable for mass atrocities, to:  

a)  gather information about such mass atrocities, including gross human rights violations, use of force against civilians, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary executions, sexual violence, and interference with access to medical treatment;  

b)  continue to take actions to ensure that senior officials in the Government of Syria and other individuals responsible for mass atrocities in Syria are held accountable, including by using the authority provided under Executive Order 13572 and Executive Order 13573 to designate additional individuals;  

    (7) urges the Atrocities Prevention Board, once it is formally constituted by the President as called for in Presidential Study Directive-10, to provide recommendations concerning measures to prevent continued mass atrocities in Syria; and  

   (8) commends the establishment of the “Friends of the Syrian People” Contact Group and  other international diplomatic efforts to end the violence and support a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria, and reaffirms the necessity of the departure from power of Bashar al-Assad.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Six telling messages from Baba Amr walkabout

President Assad in Baba Amr

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday toured the devastated rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in the restive city of Homs that his forces had overrun last month after 26 days of heavy bombardment and gunfire.
Hundreds of civilians and several foreign journalists – including Gilles Jacquier, Marie Colvin, Rémi Ochlik,  Rami al-Sayed, Anas al-Tarsha, Paul Conroy and Edith Bouvier – were killed or maimed in Baba Amr and other parts of Homs before the army reclaimed the rebel stronghold.
In his daily column for the Beirut daily an-Nahar, political analyst Rajeh el-Khoury today says Assad’s walkabout in the streets of the ravaged district was meant to convey a total of six messages:
1.    One is to Thursday’s Arab summit meeting in Baghdad. The message is that planned reference in the summit’s closing communiqué to the Arab initiative and its endorsement by the UN Security Council is now outdated. “The regime will reestablish its authority and eradicate ‘terror’ before it gets to address political reform.”
2.    A second to next Sunday’s “Friends of Syria” conference in Turkey, which persists in pushing for Syrian opposition unity. The message reads: facts on the ground disprove Barack Obama’s talk at one time of Assad’s days in office being numbered. “It’s rather the Syrian opposition’s days that are numbered.”
3.     A third to Turkey, which was reported lately to be seriously thinking of carving up a buffer zone in Syrian territory to accommodate the growing number of refugees. The message is: the move is needless. “Baba Amr was the opening shot in the military campaign, not the last.”
4.    A fourth to Kofi Annan, saying: talk of cessation of violence in the presence of “pockets of armed terrorists” is pointless and a national dialogue will lead nowhere before the Syrian army regains control of every inch of Syrian territory. “If this takes turning the whole of Syria into a Baba Amr, so be it.”
5.    A fifth message is to the international community, which is hiding behind the back of Annan’s “sluggish and tourism” mission. “It took Syria two weeks to ponder his six points and draft its six answers, which now raise six new questions.”
6.    The sixth and last aim of the Baba Amr walkabout was simply meant “to pat the army on the back for having fought its people for a year…”

"Is Russia Changing Tack on Syria?"

Interviewing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for Kommersant FM radio (on March 19) was an interesting experience. Russia's diplomat-in-chief was glad to be able to engage in some ping-pong on issues like the death penalty in Belarus, U.S.-Russian relations, Iran’s nuclear program and, of course, the Syrian crisis.
This was probably one of the most interesting bits of the conversation. On this issue Lavrov was most expansive and most emotional – at least for a diplomat.
Konstantin von Eggert (Photo from RIA Novosti)
On the one hand he repeated the oft-quoted claims that in Syria it was not strictly speaking a confrontation between the army and unarmed civilians, but a fight between two forces – the Assad regime’s army and security forces and al-Qaeda terrorists.
“It is true that some people have taken up arms to defend their homes and families, but that’s not the whole story,” Lavrov said before setting out to describe what he saw as a plot by the Sunni states (for these, read “Qatar and Saudi Arabia”) to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s Alawi government in Syria and replace it with a Sunni one. However when I asked whether Moscow considers the possibility that the Syrian president may have to flee to Russia, if the situation in his country really sours, Lavrov snapped: “No one is inviting him to Moscow.”
The minister reserved quite a healthy dose of criticism for Mr. Assad himself. “We absolutely do not justify the Syrian leadership,” he told me. “We consider that the Syrian leadership reacted incorrectly to the rise of nonviolent protest, that despite the promises that were made in response to our numerous appeals, they are making many mistakes, and those steps being made in the proper direction are happening late.”
Mr. Lavrov suggested that a roundtable should be set up in Syria along the lines of the one which had agreed on easing Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen’s presidential chair, which he occupied for more than thirty years, initiated a transition period and created a new legitimate and recognized authority, in the figure of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi.
When I countered that Yemen is still living through something that many experts describe as a low-intensity civil war, the minister said that there was a massive al-Qaeda presence in Yemen, which contributed to the instability. I did not get the chance to ask why then the Syrian situation, of which according to the Russian version, radical Islamists are also part, should develop along the lines of the Yemeni scenario.
However, it was probably for the first time that a Russian government official was so frank in criticizing Damascus and so detailed in describing a possible way out of the Syrian dead end. It seems to have finally dawned on the Russian leadership that its Syrian ally will not emerge a winner from this crisis. With both the Arab world and most of the West ranged against him, and only Iran and Russia to help him in any way, Bashar al-Assad’s fortunes do not look good at all. Moreover, even if he manages to quell the uprising now, too much blood has been spilled in this intra-Syrian tragedy for life in the country to return to the days of the oppressive stability that the regime managed to maintain in the first decade of al-Assad’s rule.
The negotiated solution that Russia is suggesting would involve external players and give Moscow time to bargain over its commercial and military interests in Syria. It will also help avoid “regime change” in its classic form. And this is the Kremlin’s main concern. Ever since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, but especially after the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine the Russian leadership is obsessed with the idea of the West engineering the overthrow of governments that for this or that reason it finds unsuitable. Vladimir Putin and his team seem to be convinced that something like that could happen to Russia.
Moscow’s adamant (until recently) stance on Syria has a lot to do with arms sales to Damascus and the Russian naval station in the port of Tartus. But it has even more to do with the Kremlin making a point internationally which is quite simple: “Neither the UN, nor any other body or group of countries have the right to decide who should and who should not govern a sovereign state”. If one looks at the Syrian crisis from this angle many of Moscow’s previously inexplicable actions take on a new, clearer meaning.
“The eventually inevitable departure of Mr. Assad should not look like a regime change” – that is how I would describe the Kremlin’s attitude. I wonder if those sitting behind its tall red walls really think that one day this idea may become relevant for Russia.

*Konstantin von Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service’s Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He is a frequent lecturer at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Royal College of Defense Studies in London and Wilton Park (UK), Uppsala and Lund Universities (Sweden). Queen Elizabeth II made him Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

March, an ill-starred month for Druze leaders

Clockwise from top: Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, Kamal Jumblatt and Sheikh Ahmad Salman al-Hajri

Lebanon’s foremost Druze leader Walid Jumblatt restated today his call on residents of the Syrian Druze stronghold of Jabal al-Arab, also known as Jabal al-Druze, to join the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
His appeal came in a cable to Syrian activist Muntaha al-Atrash on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the death of her father, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash.
Jumblatt wrote Atrash in the cable posted on the website of his Progressive Socialist Party, “On the occasion of the anniversary of the death of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, which coincides with the martyrdom of Kamal Jumblatt… we renew the call to our Jabal al-Arab brethren to enlist in the revolution in keeping with their struggle and patriotism history…”
March seems an ill-starred month for Druze leaders.
Sultan Pasha al-Atrash was 91 when he passed away on March 26, 1982.
Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt, was shot dead in his car on March 16, 1977, as it approached a Syrian military checkpoint in Lebanon’s Chouf district.
And the highest spiritual leader of Syria’s 700,000-strong Druze community, Sheikh al-‘Aql Ahmad Salman al-Hajri, was killed on Sunday, March 25, in a car accident which Syrian activists say was staged by the regime.
In today's Kuwaiti daily al-Watan, columnist Fuad al-Hashem says a Syrian “military vehicle” rammed Hajri’s car and killed him after he “refused on three occasions to appear on state TV to endorse Assad.”
Also today, Yacoub Kara, a Druze legislator in Israel’s Knesset, is quoted as saying Hajri’s death was staged in an “accident” that is archetypal for eliminating regime opponents in Syria.

Have two more journalists been killed in Syria?

Syria's Darkush township on the River Orontes (Photo from

Syrian security forces reportedly killed Monday two independent journalists of Algerian origin but holding British citizenship in Idlib province, where they were filming a documentary on the Syrian uprising.
Algeria’s Echorouk Online today names the two victims as Walid Boudina and Wassim Lazayzieh and says they were killed near Darkush, a small township on the River Orontes in the Idlib region.
Although Syrian activists on the ground and the London-based Human Rights Watch organization have confirmed news of the purported double killing, there has been no word on it in the British media or at the Foreign Office.
Protesters with portraits of the two Turkish journalists missing in Syria 
Two Turkish journalists -- Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun – went missing around Idlib on March 11. Their whereabouts remain unknown, but the general belief in Ankara is that regime’s shabiha allegedly handed them over to Syrian intelligence.
Özköse, a reporter from the Istanbul-based Gerçek Hayat magazine and the Milat daily, arrived with Coşkun, a cameraman, in Syria on March 5. They were last heard from on March 10.
In London, The Guardian quotes the campaign group Avaaz as saying a Syrian activist who helped injured journalists flee Babr Amr, in Homs, after Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed, has been arrested by government forces.
Avaaz says Jassim Khaled Diab, 35, was ambushed Saturday outside the village of Nazariya bordering Lebanon.
It describes Diab as "instrumental in securing the delivery of life-saving humanitarian aid to besieged cities and towns across Syria". It also credits him with evacuating the injured across the border into Lebanon so that they could receive appropriate medical care. Avaaz says he was trying to help one such person across the border when he was arrested. His companions managed to escape and transfer the injured person to a safe area.
According to Avaaz campaigner Wissam Tarif, “Jassim embodies the courage shown by the Syrian people who are locked in a bitter and bloody struggle against a murderous barbaric regime. Jassim has saved dozens of lives by evacuating patients across the border so that they could receive medical treatment and by delivering humanitarian aid to besieged cities. He was fighting for a brighter future.
“Avaaz believes the bloody Syrian regime will not hesitate to take revenge on Jassim because of the role he played in the Syrian revolution. At this time the brave activist is facing the worst kind of torture regularly used in the regime's prisons and detention centers. This torture could result in his death. We hold the Syrian regime fully responsible for his safety and demand his immediate release together with that of all activists and protesters arrested during the year.”