Talisman Gate

Friday, March 17, 2006

Bashar's Shabby Inheritance

March 16, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Shabby Inheritance


March 16, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/29275

Dictatorships usually derive continuity from having a group of people who will fight to the death to maintain the status quo. Syria is most definitely a dictatorship, but finding its base is a hard thing to do these days.

Three weeks ago, two events occurred in Damascus that gave some indication as to Syria's economic direction: a first KFC fast food joint was opened in an upscale neighborhood, and taxi meters were recalibrated to reflect increasing international prices as the government starts reducing its subsidies of energy. Coming around the 43rd anniversary of the March 8 Ba'athist coup d'etat that started it all and that launched a homegrown interpretation of socialism, an observer would be tempted to think that Syria's dictator Bashar Al-Assad is trying to take a country scarred by his father's legacy in the right direction.

Yet the meters for most taxis prowling the city have yet to be upgraded, given the snail-paced machinations of a bureaucracy obsessed with multiple permits and never-ending paperwork. The compromise has been to print a sticker with the price adjustments so that patrons and drivers don't enter into endless arguments over the fare. As of a few days ago, the authorities ran out of stickers too.

On the other hand, the prices for an order of fried drumsticks would be prohibitive to the vast majority of Syrians, but they can gawk at the diners who can afford it. Up the road in the Abu Rommana neighborhood stands the American Embassy; looking more than a barracks hunkered down behind coils of barbed wire than a beacon of Americana, which makes sense given that rioters tried to burn it 8 years ago, and a couple more times since. Also around is the burnt-out hulk of the building that used to house the Danish Embassy - another victim of rioters just a few weeks ago.

Climbing up to higher ground, one would spot the Presidential Palace, where security personnel in badly tailored black suits and ties adorned with a picture of Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar's father, mill around trying to stay out of the sun. Traffic is sparse and eerily silent as no one dares to honk. It is puzzling how a horde of hooligans would have been able to run about unchallenged while burning embassies in this, the most secure of Damascene neighborhoods.

Maybe it had something to do with the campaign to boycott Danish products being advertised on huge billboards all over town, bearing the phone number of the public relations company managing the ad blitz. In other words, embassies burn because the regime allows them to, even though this same regime is going through the motions of political and economic reforms. Syria, like all dictatorships, is not governed by the rule of law, rather by a capricious coterie of individuals who arbitrarily draw red lines: you only know that you've crossed the line after the fact, when you've landed in a whole world of trouble. The same coterie decides where the populace can vent its anger, this time around against the hapless Danes.

Six years ago, when new of the death of Hafez Al-Assad was broken to the world, many observers were optimistic that the Syrian regime would be transformed by his heir Bashar into something less unsavory. But where is Syria today? Is it still a repressive Ba'athist regime that found it necessary to smash Hama, a sizable town that could have been one of prettiest in the Middle East, and massacre many thousands of its people in the early 1980s, in order to stay in power? Or is it a land that is trying to go internationally legit and to open up to the world?

Syria under Bashar seems caught in a time warp. On one hand, the Syrian citizen is allowed to receive a whole spectrum of information. Arabic and Lebanese dailies that run stories critical of the Syrian regime are sold on the streets unimpeded. Satellite TV has been available here for a decade, manifested by the rusting dishes on rooftops. But at the same time, almost every shop bears the pictures of Papa Assad and his son, and almost every area of free wall space is painted with Ba'athist slogans. The most ubiquitous of those is the one that trumpets: "Our Leader Forever is Chairman Hafez Al-Assad."

But he's dead, I keep thinking; wouldn't his expiration put the myth of his immortality to sleep? Isn't it time for a fresh coat of paint and more up-to-date slogans? Visiting Papa Assad's grave in his hometown of Qirdaha in the foothills of the Alawi Mountains, one is attended by security men wearing the same suits and ties as around the Presidential Palace. I keep looking for comparisons between Assad's Ba'athist regime and Saddam's own version, and at least when it comes to thinking in terms of a sectarian minority holding a monopoly on power. In Qirdaha and its surrounding villages, as well as elsewhere in the Alawi domains, the squalid dwellings resemble Syrian villages all over the country, with the only difference being that some local village boy who had made it big in the city as some officer or bureaucrat has built a gauche villa - modest by Iraqi Ba'athist standards - to show off his good fortune.

So if the Alawis seemingly did not get the best deal out of 30 years of Hafez Al-Assad's rule, then who did? Which community or social class is providing the Praetorian Guard to maintain this legacy, and why?

Wandering across large portions of Syria, the bitter aftertaste one is left with is that this country is in a very shabby state, in fact, even its people seem to have blended in with their dreary surroundings. Whether the traders of Aleppo, or the Ismaili farmers of Salamiyah, or the workers at a gas plant in Banyas on the coast, or a Druze driving a cab around the capital, most seem to realize that this country is in the doldrums and that their lot could be a lot better. They are resigned to the Ba'athist whip, but they are uncertain as to who wields it: the Alawis, the merchants of Damascus, the Zionists ... etc. They dabble in endless conspiracy theories, making excuses for their tyrants - especially Bashar - by blaming excesses on the corrupt circles around them, and hoping that this will all blow over somehow without them sticking their necks out. The regime survives by dint of their political lethargy.

The Syrian regime seems brittle, and after all this time, there may be too few people who can make sense of why it should continue. Syria under Bashar is a land of co-existing contradictions that allow embassies to burn, while wanting to be part of the world community, or whose stilted bureaucracy would thwart an effort as simple as recalibrating taxi meters. It is adrift and characterless: this dictatorship does not seem to inspire a base that would defend it. This is good news for the handful of local democrats pushing back at the regime to gauge the limitations of freedom, but also for shadowy jihadists, who may be preparing for a blitz of terror. The current regime will not sustain a challenge from either, and it is now a question of who rises to the challenge first.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C., and currently traveling around Syria. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

March 16, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Friday, March 10, 2006

Zarqawi's Heartbreak

March 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Zarqawi's Heartbreak


March 9, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/28870

In Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi's fantasy world, the jihadist movement would eventually bear fruit in an Islamic empire with a Caliph restored at its head, and the place where this fantasy would play out is Damascus - the enchanted oasis that the Prophet Muhammad had likened to paradise.

Muhammad was a merchant traveling the trade route from Syria to Mecca, and had made the journey at least twice, but according to tradition he never entered the city, only glimpsing it from afar, and in one account, he took in the breadth of the city from atop Mount Qassioun that bears over Damascus, and where, again according to tradition, the ascent to heaven would be quickest on judgment day.

Many things perceived from afar would seem wondrous and enchanting, but Damascus - then and now - is anything but heavenly. Garbage has a habit of piling up at street corners, and sewage would have run, before the era of modern plumbing, down gutters. The old city has preserved most of its form for millennia, with its famed iconic Umayyad Mosque resting atop the still visible foundations of a Byzantine church, which borrowed masonry from a Roman temple for the god Jupiter immediately below, which in turn had borrowed the self-same cut stones from older structures of older religions yet.

Damascus carries extra weight for Zarqawi for being a distinctly Sunni Arab symbol, for here, the hereditary empire was set up by the Umayyads - wealthier relatives of Muhammad who fought him for most of his life and who ruled the lands of Islam until their demise at the hands of the Abbassids, other less affluent relatives of the prophet who in turn were allied with the Shias and some aggrieved non-Arab Muslims. Damascus would seem to Zarqawi and his ilk as the throne of Sunni legitimacy, but the picture is slightly fuzzier than that.

Trying to find the tomb of the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiya the First, is quite an adventure. In the Bab el-Saghir cemetery, where, according to the head gravedigger, the dead have been piled up over each other for thousands of years, the Syrian government claims to have found Muawiya's headstone and lumped him together with four other Islamic "celebrities" under a dome and called it a day. The locals say that the real tomb is nearer to the Umayyad Mosque, the centerpiece of the city, and that its current location is kept hidden so the Shias, who still loathe Muawiya, would not try to desecrate it.

Eventually I did find the mysterious tomb, which still boasts a dome built up over older masonry but which one cannot get under since it is now part of a house, and its residents, miffed that an outsider had figured out their neighborhood secret, would claim that one needs an official permit from the Syrian Ministry of Religious Affairs to get inside, and even then to peek at practically nothing. The grave has no marker, which conforms to the historical record: when the Abbassids came to Damascus, they disinterred all the graves of the Umayyad Caliphs except Muawiyya's namesake, his grandson, who abdicated the throne because he could not bear the injustice done to the Shia patron saints by his family.

Damascus was revived four centuries later by the Saladin, the vanquisher of the Christian Crusaders and a man after whom Zarqawi models his life. For a while, it became the capital of the Ayyubid dynasty, and the shrine-tombs of Saladin's numerous brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and nephews dot the suburbs that outgrew the old city in his day and where he settled his kinsmen, the Kurds. Saladin's own grave is right outside the Umayyad Mosque, and Zarqawi would be horrified to know that three Turkish aviators from the Ottoman Airforce who were shot down in World War I, as well as two secular statesmen from Iraq and Syria, are the only known graves that can claim the honor of lying beside Saladin at this time. What's more, a descendent of the Crusaders, Kaiser Wilhelm II, is acknowledged for donating a marble sarcophagus for Saladin's grave in 1898. Music wafts in from a government caretaker who also sells postcards to tourists on the site.

As the Ayyubid state dwindled in strength, Ibn Taymiyyah, an ideologue venerated by the jihadists, was born in Damascus, and became known subsequently as the Sheikh of Islam. He laid down most of the laws that governed the concept of jihad, at his time mostly directed at the invading Mongols. But he also gave Zarqawi the judicial foundations for attacking such hated enemies as the Shia and for the eradication of a heterodox offshoot called the Nusayris, or Alawis, a minority that rules Syria today through the Asad family and disproportionately staffs most of its officer ranks.

Ibn Taymiyya also loathed the Sufi Sunnis, another tenet carried by the jihadists today.

Zarqawi hopes to compel his fellow Sunni Syrians into a revolt against the Alawi regime, but at least in Damascus, he is going to be disappointed by the feedback, to the relief of the regime that even at the height of the Islamic fundamentalist challenge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, did not fear losing control over the Damascenes. Although Sufism, paramount only a century ago, has withered today to a faint rendition of its former self, Damascus is too intricately overlaid for Zarqawi to sway its Sunni populace.

Whereas the old town alleyways of other Syrian cities were hotbeds of Muslim fundamentalism, the exquisite and unique oriental charm of Damascus is a tourist trap poised to snap, and its Christians, Shias, and Sunnis seem eager for the mercantile windfall. Sunnis may hide the tomb of Muawiya from inquisitive outsiders, but they certainly don't mind learning a little Farsi to haggle with Iranian Shia pilgrims on a weeping tour of their saintly shrines.

Jihadism seems to thrive and find recruits among dislocated individuals, but a place as ancient as Damascus can claim too much continuity and hand-me-down memory for that to happen. The spiritual hole that Zarqawi hopes to fill with his particular brand of nihilism is amply taken up with local traditions, gossip, and inbred contentment.

However, the picture changes where old Damascus ends and the new cinder block tenements begin; there everything takes on the grim color of concrete. This is the urban sprawl of a 6 million strong metropolis that daily gobbles up the age-old agricultural villages in its orbit. The locals there are overrun with outsiders and poverty, and there one would find harsher glares of resentment. This "New Damascus" is more likely a hospitable environment for the jihadists rather than the ancient mosques and tombs that carry such loaded symbolism for their cause.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C., and currently traveling in Syria. He can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

March 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Friday, March 03, 2006

Divorce, Iraqi Style

March 2, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Divorce, Iraqi Style


March 2, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/28418

The unity of Iraq is not sacrosanct. Certainly it is no more hallowed than human life or the symbols of religious faith that vast numbers of people are attached to. National pacts and national identities are supposed to be utilitarian: creating a single unit out of composite groups for the common good. However, when unions result in an uncomfortable embrace, level-headed people should consider dismembering states that do not function well. The idea of keeping Iraq together even though Sunni and Shiite animosities may have crossed the point of no return is even more dangerous and unstable than the prospect of breaking up Iraq - at least as far as the Shiites are concerned.

The magnitude of the terrorist attack on the Samarra shrine last week cannot be explained to the uninitiated. What the world saw was a pile of broken bricks and mangled ironwork. Crumbling mortar and cracked azure tiles littered the scene, as well as gold-plated copper squares that used to adorn an oft-reconstructed dome. Dazed men were clambering over the debris, some holding up relics of some obscure saint. However, the world's Shiites saw the scene differently.

Imagine an international secret society comprising a quarter of a billion souls that sees itself as the eternal underdog and speaks in hushed whispers; hiding a revolutionary frenzy from the watchful spies of the tyrant. These are the myths that Shiites have created for themselves, and it is for these beliefs they have endured 1,300 years of oppression. Their solace found expression in mystical concepts of intercession by their beloved and martyred leaders, whose graves were portals into the sublime and hence onward to the divine. Their anguish and prayers would be vented in one-way communication with their awaited savior, the messiah or Mahdi, who is biding his time to reemerge and avenge his victimized flock.

All these deeply moving symbols were hit in Samarra. What Shiites saw in the heaps of debris was the destruction of this portal; a determined attempt by their enemies to cut them off from their origins. This was an attack at the very heart of a secret faith that has animated generation upon generation.

For now, the leaders of the faith, who are supposed to keep the seat warm until the Mahdi shows up, and who for the most part derive legitimacy as bearers of the legacy of those earlier leaders whose shrine was destroyed, are counseling restraint and reserve, and are being applauded for that by everyone. But if Iraqi Shias are being asked not to be sentimental about a 1,200 year old symbol, then why should they be sentimental about Iraq, a country and a national identity invented by non-Iraqis only 80 years ago?

Anyone who thinks that the storm has passed because the Samarra attack did not prompt an all-out civil war is probably unaware of the skewed logic of such uncivil bloodbaths. In every 20th century example, historians would look back to an event as a "trigger" for a civil war that went unacknowledged as such at the time of its occurrence. There is never a declaration of war, it always sort of meanders into raising the tolerance level for what counts as outrage; the origins are hazy and only in hindsight, after much burns to the ground, can one discern a pattern of a trigger. What is the magic number for casualties that would validate classifying a conflict with the label of "civil war"? How many Shias being killed for the sole reason of being Shias, and Sunnis suffering the same fate, does it take for all of us to realize that the concept of Iraq is no longer salvageable?

Shias would be perfectly justified in putting the dismemberment of Iraq on the negotiating table. They are being ushered by the Americans into a close embrace with a partner that refuses to be reconciled to power-sharing, as the voting patterns for Iraq's Sunnis in the constitutional referendum and the December elections demonstrate. There is every indication that the Sunni platform calls for the dismantling of all the changes that have occurred since April 9, 2003, when Saddam's regime - and many centuries of Sunni rule - collapsed. This is a foolish and unrealistic pipe dream, yet the Sunni leadership and populace in their vast majority seem wedded to this fantasy and are willing to continue fighting until they bring it about.

If the Sunnis are allowed to take a seat at the table and barter with the threat of further terrorism if their demands are not met, then the Shias should be allowed to make threats of their own - threats of separation where they would be assured of victory.

Some say that there are no winners in civil war, but that is just hogwash. The Sunnis are not only holding all the other communities back, but are seemingly taking delight in how the radicals among them are desecrating Shia lives and symbols. If this goes on unabated, there will be a bloody war, but it would be one that is advantageous for Shia: instead of being blown to bits in the marketplace, or picked out for execution from a random checkpoint, their casualties would be paid to establish a new border line from Fallujah to Samarra to Baquba and then east to Khaneqin that envelops the capital of Baghdad, where elections results showed they outnumbered Sunnis four to one, and hence they would inherit all the trappings of the Iraqi state, including its name. The Sunnis will be left with next to nothing and another war-front with the Kurds over Kirkuk and Mosul.

Dark and horrible repercussions like population transfers and massive human rights violations would likely follow, probably disproportionately paid by Sunnis, whereby a million of them would have to clear out of a new Shia Iraq. The train wreck of dealing with mixed households and property claims would be heartbreaking. The regional implications, whether concerning how Sunni regimes would react to Sunni anguish in Iraq, as well as stirring up Shia minorities in the Gulf who maybe interested in a loose confederation with their coreligionists now in power, and Turkish sensitivity to a Kurdistan that become independent by no fault of its own, would be massive. Iran would certainly move in to take over the new state. But all these would be America's problems; the Shias would emerge with the best possible deal.

Since the establishment of the Iraqi state, the Shias can be compared to a battered spouse holding the deeds to the house and the car while trapped in an unhappy marriage, knowing that she should end the union but sticking around for the sake of the kids. If anyone needs to romanced and appeased, they do. The Sunnis have shown bad faith, and are not even remorseful for what came before, whereas they should be promising the sky and the moon in a prenuptial agreement so that the Shias would take them back. Ayatollah Sistani, who is damping down the Shia backlash, is not going to be around forever, and the Americans will need to draw up contingency plans should, in light of continuing provocation from the Sunnis, the Shias decide to opt out of Iraq - an outcome that no one should blame them for. America can then choose between a Sunni state whose main export would be phosphates and desert truffles, or a Shia Iraq sitting on a lake of oil.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

March 2, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >