The Assad attack

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has launched a scathing attack on his critics around the world. Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  November 20, 2005

|~|Syrians-200.jpg|~||~|On the day after three suicide bombers struck at the heart of the Jordanian capital, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad gave what many in and outside the Arab world saw as an unexpectedly unbending and tough speech in Damascus. The speech at Damascus University was multidimensional in content and carried both subtle and visible messages with respect to a number of issues. It was far from passionate and viewed by and large as confrontational and belligerent in Lebanon, Europe and the US. Rather than alleviate uncertainties surrounding Syria — the situation in the context of the Mehlis investigation is gradually beginning to mirror that of Iraq in the run up to the war — with the speech elevating fears in the region and among Syrians that the country is now set on the path of confrontation. The Syrian president spoke about four different dimensions. He touched on the existing relationship between Lebanon and Syria, alluded to what Syrians view as a conspiracy by the US and its allies to use Lebanon and undermine the security and stability of Syria. He also focused on the conflict in Iraq and the issue of border control with Iraq. America has persistently accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to infiltrate Iraq. Aside from pledging Syria would stand by Iraq and refuting all American claims that Syria was actively fuelling the insurgency in Iraq, the Syrian president said he was willing to cooperate with Iraq, and as a sign of his seriousness invited Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to Damascus. Assad also addressed the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rights of the Arabs to have their land back, with the occupied Syrian Golan Heights at the top of his agenda. With respect to the Palestinians, Assad acknowledged Syria's differences with the late Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat but also said Syria agrees to anything the Palestinians agree to. "It is clear Assad was expressing the immense pressure that Syria is facing right now, from the international community, through the United Nations Security Council, and the latest resolution [1636]. The fact that Syria is being undermined in its own sovereignty because of this resolution and the strict obedience to Mehlis's requests is not something they can tolerate because it could cause disturbances within Syria and that he is willing to cooperate provided that the national interests and security of Syria will not be jeopardised," explains Michel Nehme, dean of Notre Damn University in Lebanon. Syrian political analyst and writer Sami Moubayed believes the speech was presidential in content and that it would have been wrong to expect anything less. "The regime feels, and it's correct in this manner, that it is unwise at this stage to show weakness. No leader in times of crisis would come out and say I am weak; I don't have solutions and I'm going to surrender. This part, which was warmly received by the Syrian street, the macho talk was intended for the local consumption," explains Moubayed. For his part, Ammar Abdul Hamid, a Syrian fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes Assad has committed a grave mistake. "I think that Bashar has simply turned his back on the Syrian people leaving them to fend for their own in the face of looming international sanctions," says Abdul Hamid. "He put 18 million people in the face of the barrel of a cannon and he hid behind them. He relegated his duties to protect the people for the sake of protecting his family and his family interests, and he turned the state over to Divine Providence, as he said 'Syria, God protects her'. I thought that was his job too." The immediate reaction from the Bush administration was one of contempt, with US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said, "What I have seen so far [from Syria] is a lot of criticism of the process, criticism of the investigation … One way or another, I hope that Syria is going to cooperate." To the French, Assad's speech indicated a desire not to cooperate, and French president Jacques Chirac who said Syria was not being targeted, nonetheless indicated his displeasure when he said sanctions would be implemented if Syria "persists in not wanting to listen or understand." Under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, use of force could possibly be used should Damascus not comply with UN Resolution 1636 passed unanimously by the Security Council. Still, United Nations secretary general Kofi Anan was diplomatic and chose to concentrate on the fact the Syrian president had pledged to cooperate with the UN Mehlis investigating team. But Assad's remarks with respect to Lebanon and specifically its prime minister Fouad Siniora that he was the "slave of slaves" drew nothing but indignation in Lebanon. That anger was not however present among the Shiite movement of Hezbollah, which is supported by the Assad regime, and is the subject of UN resolution 1559 that calls on its disarmament and other factions in Lebanon. It came as no surprise then when Siniora wanted to discuss the speech of Assad in a cabinet session, that Hezbollah ministers along with others from the Amal Shiite movement also an ally of Syria, walked out. In its leading editorial, the Lebanese Daily Star wrote: "At this crucial stage in the building of a new Lebanon, it is critically important that our leaders send clear signs of unity and make sincere efforts to engage in open debate and forge a common ground. During the recent parliamentary campaign, both Hezbollah and Amal stressed the importance of solidarity among the Lebanese. This solidarity, when confronted by an external threat, ought not unravel; rather, attacks from outsiders should only serve to fortify the feelings of unity among Lebanese." The friction however has not subsidised between these movements and the Lebanese premier. If anything the situation has escalated, and the pressure on Siniora has increased from Hezbollah in particular who have been demanding the prime minister clarify his views with respect to UN Resolution 1559 which they see as a threat. "This is indicative of a hurt national pride in Syria," explains Sami Moubayed, in reference to Assad's attack on the Lebanese premier. "At a grassroots level, you find this among most of Syria's 18 million who believe the Lebanese unjustly attack them. Many people used to say that anti-Syrian criticism coming out of Lebanon until April 26, the date of Syria's withdrawal was understandable, but everything since then is a pure attack on Syria. This has aroused a great deal of anti-Lebanese sentiment in the Syrian street, which the president reflected." The chances of confrontation between Syria and the West further increased as Iran announced it was fully in support of the Syrian position. "Syrian officials are handling this issue in a satisfactory way," Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters after talks with president Bashar Assad and foreign minister Farouk Al Shara. "We want the UN commission of inquiry to continue its work on a legal basis and not politicise the case," said Mottaki, adding, "The United States is pursuing its own expansionist, hegemonic goals in several parts of the region." But the investigation at present is at standpoint with on the one hand the German Judge Detlev Mehlis leading the investigation into the death of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, demanding to interview six individuals at the headquarters of the UN investigation team in Lebanon, and on the hand Syria's refusal to comply with the request. The deadlock is likely to accentuate the pressure on Syria. "The Syrians are saying we want to cooperate but we don't want to send these people to Lebanon. That it's a matter of national pride. I think this is going to lead to more problems. It's definitely not a smooth era," says Moubayed, adding. "The president, tried to say this in his speech. He was preparing for the worst, when he said its better to be killed than kill ourselves. It was a warning that hard times are coming." Though the Syrian leadership may view the Assad speech as a clear indicator of its intent to cooperate, it nonetheless is a confirmation to others of Syrian intransigence, who then find it pertinent to ask, if Syria doesn't have anything to hide then why does it not cooperate with Mehlis the way they he wants it to? ||**||

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