Monday 30 April 2012

"Annan came too late, possibly much too late"

(Combo photo from Wikipedia)

Kofi Annan came too late, possibly much too late.
It would have been better if he made an entry a year earlier. A ceasefire could have worked, and so the withdrawal of heavy weapons and forces from population centers. The prisoners could have been released, foreign journalists could have been allowed to move freely and the dialogue on reform could have started on the basis of little change and ample continuity.
A year ago, there would have been fewer funerals of civilians and men in uniform, and not as many prisoners, devastated cities and townships, “Friends of Syria,” “armed gangs,” deserted embassies and Arab and Western sanctions.
A year ago, exiting the tunnel would have been possible by disciplining one officer here and another there and retiring the Baath Party without anyone demanding its “eradication” as befell its twin in Iraq.
An independent figure, not one hatched by party and security branches, could have been named prime minister. A calm process could have been initiated to restrain the security branches and keep away the ugly scenes from the screens.
A year ago, the ceiling of opposition demands was lower. The flames could have been doused before spreading.
I keep reverting to Annan’s plan, always concluding he came much too late. Moscow might regret her prudence later on. Had she helped formulate this sort of plan earlier, she could have spared the Syrian regime its current predicament. She could have dispensed with her own present muddle as well. It is too early to say Moscow succeeded in exploiting the Syria crisis simply to remind of her interests, status and role. I believe Washington is glad to see her – like Iran and Hezbollah – at odds with most Arabs and Muslims. Some people impute Russia’s support of the Annan plan to her wish to extricate herself from this mess.
In any case, Annan’s plan is not good news for Syria’s regime, although the plan was tabled after the door was slammed shut on military intervention under either the UN flag or NATO’s.
But having been endorsed unanimously by the international community, the plan puts Syria under international supervision. This means supporters of the plan don’t buy the Syrian line suggesting the confrontation is between law and order forces and “armed gangs” driven by external sides.
Annan’s plan came behind time – that is, after all players had gone too far. By players, I mean the regime, the opposition, the region’s heavyweights and the Big Powers. What was possible a year ago seems impossible today. The propensity for compromise evaporated with the heavy losses sustained by the parties. The confrontations seriously hurt the regime’s standing, its icons and its institutions – particularly the army. They also gravely damaged relations between the components. Neither the regime nor its opponents can afford to backtrack after 10,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands detained.
Kofi Annan turned up late. His plan’s demands are too exacting to elicit regime compliance. The regime has difficulty holding fire and pulling out armor when it entails protesters returning to fill public squares. Shooting was meant to thwart a Syrian Benghazi and million-strong marches. How can the regime release detainees when the opposition can still take to the streets? And how can the regime respect the right to demonstrate peacefully and ensure freedom of movement across the country for the foreign press to document its doings? Over and above, the opposition insists any dialogue with the regime should be about the transition stage.
All this simply assumes the regime’s acceptance of everything it had previously rejected, especially that the plan requests the regime to de-structure itself piecemeal.
Clearly, Annan turned up after it was too late. Nobody had a solution at hand, so everyone raised Annan’s banner. His mission is crucial and hazardous because post-Annan won’t be anything like pre-Annan.
*Ghassan Charbel is the Lebanese editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. The original Arabic wording of his editorial appears in today’s edition of al-Hayat.

Sunday 29 April 2012

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the suspected drug mule

Ahmad al-Gizawi and wife Shahinda (Photos from al-Ahram)

Riyadh and Cairo seem inclined to bury the hatchet after Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who leads the military council currently governing Egypt, telephoned Saudi King Abdullah and asked that Saudi Arabia’s decision to close its embassy and consulates in Egypt be reconsidered.
The monarch promised to “look into the matter” in light of the fraternal relations between the two countries.
Saudi Ambassador Ahmad al-Qattan was Saturday recalled for “consultations” following “unwarranted protests” in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo and consulates in Alexandria and Suez.
Dozens of Egyptians demonstrated outside the Saudi missions on April 24 demanding the release of Ahmad Mohammed Tharwat, better known as Ahmad al-Gizawi, a human rights activist and lawyer.
Saudi customs detained Gizawi at King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah on April 18 for trying to smuggle over 21,000 pills of the tranquillizer drug Zanax (a common misspelling of Xanax) in his luggage.
Gizawi was traveling with his wife on Umrah visas to make the offseason pilgrimage to Mecca.
Cairo daily al-Ahram today says Egypt’s semi-official Middle East News Agency (MENA) obtained a copy of an affidavit signed by Gizawi stating: “I, the undersigned, Ahmad Mohammed Tharwat, an Egyptian citizen holding passport number 5627816A, issued on 3 February 2012, certify that upon my arrival on Saudi Airlines flight 308 at 5.40 a.m. on Wednesday 18 April 2012, I picked up my three pieces of luggage. A customs official found in the suitcases eight cans of powdered milk and three Quran boxes containing the sedative drug Zanax. (Signed and fingerprinted).”
Gizawi’s wife, Dr. Shahinda Fat’hi, told the Saudi daily al-Watan before flying back to Cairo this morning she was allowed a short visit to her detained husband by courtesy of the Egyptian embassy. She told al-Watan she didn’t feel her husband was coerced to own up.
Separately, al-Watan says the tiff between the two countries could affect the flow of Saudi tourists to Egypt, “where Saudi Arabia has a $25 billion investment in the Egyptian tourism industry.”
According to the Egyptian Tourism Authority, Egypt took in 18,764 Saudi tourists last month, as opposed to 10,711 in March 2011 -- a 75.2 percent increase.
Saudi Arabia in turn hosts a massive Egyptian expatriate community numbering 1.7 million.
Egyptian columnist Mahmoud an-Nuba, writing for al-Ahram today, says, “It seems our brothers in the Kingdom expected Egyptian authorities to secure their embassy and put up barriers to prevent protesters from reaching the embassy doors. But why, I wonder, did we allow the crisis to get out of hand, knowing we have community of more than 1.5 million Egyptians in Saudi Arabia?”
Nevertheless, an-Nuba is confident “deep-rooted strategic relations between the two brotherly countries” are bound to help them overcome occasional hiccups.
Turki al-Dakheel, Saudi Arabia’s prominent journalist and number one interviewer, is less conciliatory.
Saudi-Egyptian relations, he writes in his daily column for al-Watan, have ebbed and flowed over the years. “They reached rock bottom under Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who wanted to put an end to Arab monarchies and repeatedly described Saudi Arabia’s political discourse as reactionary.”
Another dip in bilateral ties, Dakheel recalls, came in the wake of Anwar Sadat’s November 1977 trip to Israel and his subsequent signing of the Camp David Accords in September 1978.
Relations flowed again “on Egypt’s return to the Arab fold” in the 1980s.
But since the outbreak of the Egypt Spring in January 2011, Dakheel writes, “many of our brothers in the Egyptian revolution took to maligning Saudi Arabia, its rulers and its regime with or without occasion. They mistook the placidity of the Saudi side at the official and popular levels as a sign of weakness. They are mistaken. The ‘sons of the desert’ – as some of them enjoy calling us – choose tolerance because it denotes their wisdom, not failing…
“We Saudis are not chauvinists as to prevent others from discussing our affairs. Our country is key – geopolitically, economically and religiously. But we won’t tolerate being used as a peg to hang on all the shortcomings Egyptians see in their country.”
Dakheel says Saudi customs detained lawyer Gizawi for trying to smuggle in 21,000 sedative pills. The Egyptian consul acknowledged the cause of the arrest but said Gizawi was a drug mule.
Even so, says Dakheel, how could a lawyer ignore the legal implications of becoming a Saudi-bound drug mule? 

Saturday 28 April 2012

Saudi lady dazzles in digital fashion design

All Shaikha Al-Humaidi's digital designs are from her website
Twelve Saudi women made the cut last month to CEO Middle East magazine’s list of “The 100 Most Powerful Arab Women” for 2012.
Of the dozen, eight are placed in the “Culture and Society” category, two in “Banking and Finance” and one each in “Government” and “Construction and Industry.”
I intend writing about all 12 in a future post. I was surfing the Internet for information and photos for that purpose when I stumbled on the storyline of a 13th Saudi woman who is not exactly “powerful” as the rest, but certainly innovative and talented.
She is Shaikha Al-Humaidi, a Saudi pioneer in digital fashion design.
Journalist Amal Al-Sibai introduced her to the readers of Saudi Gazette, including myself, earlier this month:
Al-Humaidi, who loved drawing and painting as a child, converted to art, fashion and color mixing when she turned 13.
Growing up, she got encouraged by her father’s constant praise for her artwork.” From secondary school onward, she would design her own dresses that she would wear on special occasions.
Gradually, family members and close relatives started asking Al-Humaidi to draw (ornate) gowns to be tailored at the local dressmaker’s shop.
Al-Humaidi says, “After I got married, I continued to create my own dresses. It was my husband who first encouraged me to expand my horizons and to take my talent for design beyond my immediate circle of family and friends.
“He developed a website for me that included pictures of the most glamorous gowns I had made and he named the website ‘Mozhelah’ (مذهلة), meaning ‘amazing.’ Much to my surprise, I received immense positive feedback from site visitors, and started getting official orders and requests to design dresses.”
To keep up with her customers’ demands, Al-Humaidi set off to learn everything there is to know about digital designing, the most up to date computer software in the field, fabric textures, embroidery, cutting materials and more.
Thus her online fashion design business was born. Al-Humaidi became one of the first Saudi women to design, custom-make, and sell dresses via the Internet.
Asked to describe what she does, Al-Humaidi said: “Digital fashion designing is convenient and it saves time and energy for both the designer and the client. What is special about digital designing is that the electronic model of the gown can be easily adjusted and played with until you meet all your client’s wishes and until she is 100 percent satisfied.
“The client can see a three-dimensional image of what her gown is going to look like and the details from all angles, which is unlike paper sketches.”
The young Saudi fashion designer, who is also mother to a little girl, specializes in evening gowns and wedding gowns.
She also aspires to launch her own lingerie line.
Al-Humaidi believes in empowering other young Saudi women, teaching them the secrets of the trade, and giving them “wings” to fly on their own in the booming industry of digital fashion design.
She was one of the first women in any Arab country to offer courses and train other women in this new field, teaching them how to use the software tools for designing.
Once her business was up and running, Al-Humaidi decided to open her own “fashion academy” and share with other Saudi and other Arab women her skills in digital fashion design.
Al-Humaidi said, “The women who completed the digital designing course are extremely gifted and they are competent enough to compete with the most prominent names in the fashion world. Digital designing allows the Saudi woman to realize her dreams without leaving the privacy of her home. It shows women how to make wise use of their free time, maximize their potential, become productive, and nurture their talents...”
The talented designer’s next big step is to participate in a star-studded fashion show in Dubai slated for October. She is currently working on several evening gowns to parade on Dubai’s catwalks.
All accompanying digital designs are from Shaikha Al-Humaidi’s portfolio. More can be found on her website.

Friday 27 April 2012

Russia: Big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth

Authoritative political analyst Sarkis Naoum writes daily for Beirut’s newspaper an-Nahar.
He only puts his daily comments on hold once or twice a year, when he travels to the United States for brainstorming sessions on topical Middle East issues with past or present Administration officials and think-tank heavyweights.
Once back in Beirut, his columns serialize his stateside findings the span of two or three weeks.
After his piece last week (“Syria is fragmenting, says American facilitator”), here is his write-up today about Russia’s big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth:
Sarkis Naoum: The high-ranking U.S. official – who is an old hand in Middle East affairs now handling files partly linked to Syria, Israel and Lebanon – is telling me why Russian leaders resumed the Cold War with America.
They [Russians] tell us America is arming the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian opposition. This is not true. They told us this lately in the course of our visit to Moscow.
We responded: If you sincerely believe what you say, we are prepared to elaborate and convince you it is false. But if you are, knowingly and deliberately, bringing up the arming issue with us for propaganda purposes while knowing it is unfounded, we shall listen to you respectfully and return home.
There are many reasons prompting Russia to support Syria and Bashar al-Assad. Among them is (Vladimir) Putin’s bid for the presidency. But, believe me, the day will come when Putin will haggle with Assad.
Assad doesn’t grasp this. Russia as a state is dying. Alcoholism in Russia is a big problem. So is the fact that the death rate exceeds the birth rate. [Russia’s] economic boom is fuelled by the oil boom and by the high level of energy prices.
Russia is rich in oil but does not have a strong economy. That’s why its economic growth is unsteady.
In any case, we need to discuss with the Russians ways of convincing Assad to leave office and spend the rest of his life in Russia or in any other state willing to offer him sanctuary. As far as I know, four or five states have already made him the offer.
So far, he has adamantly refused. He insists on staying in the country despite everything. Like his friends in Lebanon, he believes it won’t take him long to finish off the rebels through violence, repression and ‘cleansing.’
Discussions are ongoing in Washington about going back to the UN Security Council… It’s important we get the Russians on board with us. That will send a strong message to Assad.
Will the Russians go along with us? Will they acquiesce? I don’t know. I know they can’t keep supporting Assad unless of course civil war in Syria becomes a fait accompli. In that case, civil war will be drawn-out – perhaps for years.
Nonetheless, we have the means to pressure Russia, and we will use them.
Sarkis Naoum: You did well at the Security Council when Russia and China vetoed the UN draft resolution on Syria. You were able to get India, Brazil and South Africa to join you in voting in favor. Will you be trying to keep those nations on your side? Your relations with China differ from those with Russia. Unlike Russia, China does not seem directly concerned with Syria…
What you just said is correct. We try our best. Mussolini used to say ages ago: “Big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth.” That’s Russia today.
Sarkis Naoum: What about Turkey? It talked tough in the early stages of the Syrian crisis, making Syrians and Arabs believe it would do its utmost against Assad to protect Syrians and the rebels. It later backpedaled and seemed hesitant, which upset both Syrians and Arabs. What is Turkey really after?
Despite its muscle and solid economic growth, Turkey too could be parroting Mussolini: “Big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth.”
Turkey concluded clearly last August that Assad and his regime should go. This came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Damascus visit.
Assad listens, concurs but doesn’t implement, and sometime dismisses.
Davutoglu is an excellent theoretician but he is not adequately pragmatic. I met with him on one of my assignments. We broached the subject of the Freedom Flotilla. I asked him about his government’s support for the flotilla and the likely negative fallouts on Turkey. He answered me: “We are a free nation; people are free to do as they wish, but they won’t involve the government.” Israel attacked the flotilla, people were killed and others injured and the Turkish government got involved and remains so until this day.
There is some oversimplification, or maybe inexperience, in this day’s Turkey.
Turkey is strong. We don’t doubt that. But it faces many problems in its relations with the Army…

Thursday 26 April 2012

Syria is cheating, says UN chief

Thursday night’s Statement attributable to the Spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Syria:
"The Secretary-General is gravely alarmed by reports of continued violence and killing in Syria, including shelling and explosions in various residential areas as well as armed clashes.  He condemns in the strongest terms the continued repression against the Syrian civilian population and violence from any quarter.   This situation is unacceptable and must stop immediately.
"The Secretary-General remains deeply troubled by the continued presence of heavy weapons, military equipment and army personnel in population centers, as reported by United Nations Military Observers, which is in contravention of the Syrian Government’s commitments to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from these areas.  He demands that the Government of Syria comply with its commitments without delay.    
"The Secretary-General reminds all concerned parties, particularly the Government of Syria, of the need to ensure that conditions for the effective operation of the United Nations Military Observers are put in place immediately, including a sustained cessation of armed violence."

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Syria situation “bleak” – Annan text

Cartoon from Russian news channel RT
 Madam President,
1. I speak to you today at an important juncture in our common efforts to bring an end to violence and abuses in Syria and launch a political process that can bring an end to the crisis through peaceful means. I therefore appreciate this opportunity to brief the Council.
2. Let me first thank the Security Council for its very strong support. Your quick and unanimous decisions to authorize the deployment of an Advance Team, and to establish the United Nations Supervision Mission, have shown the determination of the international community to meet the challenge of bringing a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
3. I wish to warmly thank Secretary-General Ban and Secretary-General el-Araby for their continued support for my efforts. I have been intensively engaged with a number of key leaders in the region and internationally, and thank them for their continued support as well. I greatly valued the backing and counsel I received when I attended the meeting of the Ministerial Committee of the Arab League in Doha last week.
4. We must ensure that the momentum generated by the Council's speedy decision is not lost. The expeditious deployment of UNSMIS, subject to assessment by the Secretary-General of the situation on the ground, is crucial. The support of member states to the Mission, in particular through the rapid secondment of military observers, will greatly contribute to the success of these efforts.
5. Allow me to share with the Council my overall assessment of the situation and to draw the link between the challenges on the ground, the deployment of the Mission, and the broader political objectives I have in mind.
Madam President
6. The Secretary-General, in his letter to the Council requesting the deployment of he Mission, made clear that the situation in Syria continues to be unacceptable. It is entirely contrary to the will of the international community and to the interests of the Syrian people. The Syrian authorities must implement their commitments in full, and a cessation of violence in all its forms must be respected by all parties.
7. Deputy Special Envoy Jean-Marie Guehénno briefed you on 19 April on the lull in fighting that was achieved after 12 April, and the subsequent reports of escalation, including shelling and violence in Homs. Since that briefing, reports of violence have continued. Without comprehensive monitoring of the situation, it is difficult to assess the level of violence, but the available reports suggest that, taken as a whole, the level of violence has decreased across the period since 12 April -- this, however, does not cover the spike in violence reported yesterday.
8. The peacekeeping department is updating you on the latest work of the Advance Team, which is not yet in a position to monitor meaningfully the situation throughout the country. I would like to take this opportunity to commend Hervé Ladsous, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, and his staff at the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, for their swift deployment of the Advance Team under difficult circumstances and at a critical time.
9. In areas where observers have visited, including Homs, there has largely been calm and quiet alongside their presence on the ground. However, I am concerned by media reports that, before and after Observer visits, government troops have been active in civilian areas and launched attacks. I am particularly alarmed by reports that government troops entered Hama yesterday after observers departed, firing automatic weapons and killing a significant number of people. If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible. Two observers have been stationed in Hama today.
10. I also continue to be concerned about reports of military actions in areas where the Advance Team has not been present in recent days, such as Idlib and Deraa governorates, and stress that the Government cannot cease action in one area to resume it in another- For its part, the Government continues to provide me with reports of attacks by armed groups inside the country, including bombings and armed attacks on soldiers and public property.
11. I have important information to share with you. On 21 April, the Syrian Foreign Minister informed me that, and I quote, "the withdrawal of massed troops and heavy weapons from around population centers is now complete and military operations have ceased. Orders have been issued that troops are not to be moved to protect strategic sites and centers” (end of quote). I was further informed that, and I quote, “the task of maintaining security and law and order will be carried out by the police and the forces of law and order, which will exercise self-restraint" while "the Army and Armed Forces stand ready to defend the national territory and borders against any attack from any quarter and to protect strategic sites and centers” (end quote). The letter informed me of the Syrian Government's view that it had completed implementation of items 2(a)(b) and (c) of the six-point plan.
12. I have written to the Syrian Government taking note of this letter. I stated that their communication, and I quote, “means that troops should now be back in their barrack, with heavy weapons in storage rather than operationally deployed” (end of quote). I further noted that my understanding of their communication is, and I quote, “that those involved in maintaining security in civilian areas will be police forces, operating under the principle of quote proportionate response” (…) That principle, as well as the need not to endanger civilian life, would certainly exclude any use of heavy weapons, which would amount to a disproportionate response, or use of light arms for crowd control” (end of quote). The above communication from the Syrian Government is encouraging and should make a real difference on the ground, if it is scrupulously applied. It should be understood that the only promises that count are the promises that are kept.
13. Human rights abuses have characterized much of the fighting over the past thirteen months. They must come to an end. Any cessation of armed violence must necessarily encompass a cessation of abuses such as summary executions, torture, arbitrary detentions, abductions, sexual violence and other abuses against women, children and minorities - and this applies to all sides.
Madam President,
14. Let me turn 1o other elements of the six-point plan. Action remains partial. Steps taken so far do not yet amount to the full and clear signal expected from the Syrian authorities, although gestures have been made.
15. Since 12 April, demonstrations have increased, taking place in several centers throughout Syria, particularly on the last two Fridays. Security has been tight, and there have been unconfirmed reports of the use of live fire by troops on some occasions.
16. I have been informed by the Syrian authorities that 68 international journalists have been granted visas. There does appear to be some increase in the operation of foreign journalists in the country.
17. On 16 April the Syrian Government released a statement saying that it has released 30 prisoners. They had advised they had released 97 earlier. While the Syrian Government agreed with the Red Cross on procedures for visits to places of detention to be put into practice with a visit to Damascus and Aleppo prisons, the status and circumstances of detainees across the country remains unclear and there continue to be concerning reports of significant abuses, The Government must now take a major step on the release of detainees.
18. The Syria Humanitarian Forum convened on 20 April in Geneva and was attended by the Syrian Government. It reached consensus on the scale of humanitarian needs and the urgency of a response. Words now need to be converted into action. It is critical that the Government reach an understanding with United Nations humanitarian agencies on ways to scale up operations without further delay.
Madam President,
19. As we look to the way ahead, it is clear that no course of action is without risk. The challenges to ensuring a sustained cessation of hostilities are very real: Thirteen months of conflict and brutality have taken their toll. There is little trust across the divide, and deep doubts remain about the genuine intent of the parties.
20. Yet the very fragility of the situation underscores the need to put arrangements in place that can a1low impartial supervision and monitoring. Sustained pressure and engagement from a united international community is essential. We continue to be hampered by the lack of verified information in assessing the situation. We need eyes and ears on the ground, able to move freely and quickly, and to engage all parties -- something which must be guaranteed by the Syrian authorities. This will provide the incontrovertible basis the international community needs to act in an effective and unified manner, increasing the momentum for a cessation of violence to be implemented by all sides.
21. Observers not only see what is going on, but their presence has the potential to change the political dynamics. In this respect, you have mandated the Mission not only to monitor a cessation of armed violence but to monitor and support fu1l implementation of the six-point plan. The plan is designed to help put an end to violence, but not to freeze the situation and conditions on the ground. On the contrary, its implementation, supported by the Mission, should provide an enabling environment for my efforts to facilitate a genuine political process.
22- In accordance with the Secretary-General's proposal and your resolution, the Mission has been mandated for an initial period of 90 days, and will then be the subject of assessment and review. That is not an open-ended exercise. The parties should understand the importance of ensuring that the Mission's work is facilitated and effective.
23. Let me stress the importance of the role of those states and voices with influence, including in the region. We need the help of many to explain the work of the Observer Mission, and to impress upon all concerned the need to cooperate with it and pursue political issues peacefully. This can help create a conducive environment for the Observers among all segments of Syrian society.
Madam President.
24. I turn now to the political process. A cessation of violence and action on the six-points is vital to sustain a political process. Equally, a credible political process is required if we are to sustain any long-term calm on the ground.
25. I have stated many times what such a process should entail. It should facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliation, ethnicities or beliefs. This requires a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian Government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition, and the broad involvement of Syrian society. It must be inclusive, address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Syrian people, and ensure their fundamental rights. Concerns of minorities should be addressed and particular attention should be given to ensuring their protection and rights.
26. In this regard, I will approach the Syrian Government at an appropriate time as part of concerted preparations for an all-inclusive, Syrian-led political process, and I will request the President of Syria to appoint an empowered interlocutor.
27. We have also intensified our engagement with the opposition. It is vital that the opposition will be able to engage effectively in a political process. We are working with members of the opposition to help them become more inclusive and representative in their structures and decision-making, in particular, through our recent work with the Syrian National Council.
28. In the coming weeks, we will continue to intensify consultations with representatives of the Syrian parties on how to achieve a credible transition through a process of dialogue and mediation. In addition to engaging the Government and a broad range of opposition groups, we will also engage with civil society, including women’s and religious groups and others. Our facilitation of this process of political dialogue will be truly inclusive, involving broad consultations across Syrian society and with stakeholders in the region and internationally.
Madam President,
29. In Syria, a hard and bloody road has been trodden for more than a year, taking us to this point. We all know the bleak situation on the ground and the challenges ahead. Reported events in Hama yesterday are a reminder of the risks that Syrians face if our effort to create a sustained cessation of violence does not succeed. But we have also seen events change – at least temporarily – in Homs, where violence has dropped significantly in response to the presence of a very small number of observers. This is also a reminder of the possibilities at hand – that there is a chance to expand and consolidate the cessation of violence, through both the deployment of the full mission, and through concerted and united international pressure on the parties.
30. Under the circumstances, the peace we are trying to build could never be perfect – and we have all been shocked by events in Syria. But if we succeed, the prospects are far better than any promised through war. Our patience has been tested severely – close to its limits. But we have also seen sign that there is the possibility for the parties to implement a cessation of violence, which can lead to a political process and peaceful way out of the crisis. We must now strengthen the conditions for a cessation of violence – and in this we all have a role to play.
31. It is a deeply troubling situation that we face, but we have a supreme responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure that Syria does no descend into even deeper conflict, with all the implications that this would entail for its people and the region. Our commitment to peace and human rights demands that we act now.
32. Therefore, I thank and applaud you once again for your swift action in authorizing the deployment of the observer mission. Let all of us with influence engage in a concerted, sustained and joint push for peace, pressing upon all parties to the conflict the need to commit and implement the peace plan. I urge all governments to support the peace efforts and my mediation and to use their influences to steer the parties in the right direction – achieving their goals through peaceful means and a political dialogue that would lead to a stable, democratic Syria, based on justice, respect for the rule of law and human rights.
33. We owe this to the people of Syria, and to the brave men and women that have been deployed and are about to be deployed to this vital endeavor.
Thank you, Madam President.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Beirut tramway ride to yesteryears

The Basta tramcar and my favorite Empire Cinema

The French versus English schooling debate rages on to this day. My parents proposed a happy medium: French elementary and secondary schooling followed by higher education in English. So, I began with French at the Collège du Sacré-Coeur in Gemmayzé and finished with English at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Ras Beirut.
We lived on Mohammed el-Hout Street in Ras el-Nabeh all through my secondary education. Riyad as-Solh, Lebanon’s first prime minister and independence hero, who was assassinated in Amman, Jordan, in July 1951, lived within 200 yards. So did a brother of Beirut port’s mooring master Radwan Baltaji, who rescued crew and passengers of French liner Champollion after it ran aground off the Beirut coast in December 1952. Our three households were the chief customers of a modest grocery across the street.
My parents' neighbor, Riad as-Solh
For some years, getting to school in Gemmayzé from Ras el-Nabeh was fun, great fun indeed.
Classes at the Sacré-Coeur started at 7:30. But I set off from home at 6:00. That gave me a 15-minute window to chitchat, link fingers or hold hands in the building’s entranceway with a sweetie who lived on the floor below. Her school bus picked her up not later than 6:20.
I had an hour left to get to the Collège on time, starting with a brisk seven- or eight-minute walk to Ariss tramway station.
The tramline from Ariss to Beirut’s commercial center, Bourj or Martyrs’ Square, went first through Basta al-Fawka, or Upper Basta. The marker there was a blue-painted coffeehouse opposite Basta Police Station.
The coffeehouse was renowned for a hakawati (raconteur), who recounted every night the heroic deeds of pre-Islamic Arab warrior Antar.
Then came Basta at-Tahta, or Lower Basta, which boasted a roomy mosque and a cluster of shops that sold handmade furniture.
Next on the tramway route was a sizable Moslem cemetery, Bashoura. Two-way tram and car traffic alongside Bashoura usually stopped just before or after Moslem noon or afternoon prayer times. That was when funeral processions to the mosque or cemetery took place.
The custom was for seated tram passengers to stand up as a sign of respect for the dead when a procession passed by. Drivers stepped out of their cars as well. And you knew if the deceased was male or female from whether a tarboush (fez) or a headscarf topped the coffin.
From Bashoura heading to Martyrs’ Square, the tramcar went past the landmark Kazaz (glass) Café. The café was packed at all hours with customers puffing at shishas, sipping tea or coffee, or playing cards, backgammon or dominoes.
Once in Martyrs’ Square around 7:00, I walked to the nearby Sacré-Coeur. That saved me switching tramlines and paying another five-piaster fare for a one-stop ride. The walk first took me past my favorite “Empire Cinema.”
I valued Empire because it gave students half-price tickets for afternoon shows. But what I resented in movie houses then was the mixed audience reaction to the Lebanese national anthem at curtain openings. Most in the audience stood up when the anthem was played, but a good number, still grappling with dissociation from Syria, remained seated.
After Empire Cinema, the stroll took me past alleyways ahead of the school’s main gate that led to Beirut’s now-defunct Red-Light District.
The Red-Light District and Gemmayzé were associated then with Lebanese serial killer Victor Hanna Awwad, who was hanged in January 1949. He reportedly filled jute sacks at a coal shop in Gemmayzé and preyed on some of his victims in the Red-Light District.
My Alma Mater, the Collège du Sacré-Coeur in Gemmayzé
In my six years at the Sacré-Coeur, I don’t remember having once missed entering the classroom at the strike of 7:30. My grades were outstanding throughout my six years there and I secured my Brevet and Baccalauréat diplomas comfortably.
Chance camaraderie during my first term at the Sacré-Coeur molded a key phase of my life starting age 13.
Early on in the term, I occasionally practiced roller-skating in the school courtyard with Louis, a French student colleague whose surname escapes me. He was a year older and one class higher. He was also taller and much better built.
On leaving school one afternoon, Louis told me he was heading to the nearby Cercle de la Jeunesse Catholique (CJC) for a quick workout at “La salle de culture physique.” He meant at “the physical education hall” -- or fitness gym in today’s language. He asked me if I wanted to go with him there. I said yes spontaneously and off we went.
The only fitness training I knew then was a twice weekly “cours de gymnastique” for students at the Collège. The collective sessions focused on stretching, breathing and muscle strengthening and relaxing movements directed by a former firefighter.
The CJC turned out to be a sizable, mixed membership club. It had tennis courts, table tennis tables and volleyball and basketball courts plus a proper gym subleased to a fitness guru and professional bodybuilder, Elie David (pronounced Daveed). The gym was decently equipped. It had a High Bar, Parallel Bars, Rings, a Climbing Rope, Weight Training Benches, Dumbbells and Barbells, Weight Plates and a half dozen shower units. 
After introducing me, Louis took his training session instructions from David and went about his workout. David later explained that he tailored separate workouts and diet regimes for each of his gym members. Some of them were overweight and needed to lose fat. Others were skinny and wanted to build muscles and put on weight. Some were teenagers while others were fully developed…
David’s impressive physique, conduct and refined approach to body training captured my imagination.
I told Louis when we walked out of the CJC that I would seek the LL.10 monthly gym membership fee from my parents in the evening.
By opting to do so, I was embarking on a thrilling seven-year chapter of sports in my life…

Monday 23 April 2012

Deferral of the Syrian file until autumn

Free Syrian Army men walk UN observer through Homs 

This think piece by Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of Saudi-owned Alarabiya TV news channel, appears today in Arabic:
By summer’s end, 300 UN observers will be recording their findings. The finding everyone knows already is that regime forces use violence. They fire at protesters and pound their neighborhoods.
Some observers will say there are armed gangs, failing to acknowledge that people are defending themselves inside their neighborhoods.
UN Security Council deliberations won’t resume until post-August. This means spring and summer will pass before the Security Council meets to consider the observers’ report. The same arguments will be used when trying to reach a consensus as to whether the Syrian regime is using the violence or not.
We all know the regime is using not violence but extermination. It’s the word used by French President Nicolas Sarkozy a few days ago when he said Assad forces are seeking to “wipe Homs from the map.”
The residential areas of Homs are pounded even though no fighters are there – not since Baba Amr, Khaldiya and Bayyada were blitzed. The aim is to drive away Homs’ population.
Tragedy is regime forces don’t suffice with destroying neighborhoods. They chase fleeing civilians. This doesn’t happen only in the Homs district or along the borders with Turkey. It happens everywhere… Syrians are killed or arrested when staying put and pursued when fleeing to seek refuge.
The UN gives the regime three months’ grace without saying what comes next. All we know is that Security Council meetings will be held in September to consider the UN monitors’ report. Then What?
In a best-case scenario, a vote would take place on a draft resolution penalizing the Syrian regime. The vote will almost certainly produce a Russian veto. The monitors’ mission will come to nothing.
With death and destruction persisting, the Security Council will likely hold follow-up sessions in December, when year-end holidays begin.
Pragmatically, the situation cannot wait for the peaceful settlement being promoted by the Arab League secretary-general. He is mistaken. The day will come when people won’t forgive what he did and said.
We discern a deliberate measure by a number of Arab and foreign countries to save the Syrian regime. The same nations that gave the regime cash, arms, men, time and media support have so far failed to stifle the Syrian revolution.
The Syrian public won’t coexist with this regime. The regime won’t give up power. So how can you expect a political settlement, as Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby professes?
The only conventional but untested solution is to enable Syrians to defend themselves. It’s the only way to rein in the Syrian regime’s brutal military and security machine. It is also the only way to persuade Russia and the rest to give up on their man in Damascus.