The Happy Arab News Service

Friday, August 21, 2009

And now this is what I call good stuff

Last updated: August 28, 2009

August 21, 2009

Envy Syrian Economic Minister. This man is smoking some really good stuff. Addressing the conference for tourism investment and real-estate development, Abdullah Al-Dardari has promised his audience a tsunami of investment that by 2015 will lift Syrian economy out of a hole it's currently in, boosting living standards and reducing unemployment.

DAMASCUS -- Syria is expected to witness "a wave of considerable investments" in the near future despite fallouts of the global financial crisis, Minister of Economic Affairs Abdullah Al-Dardari said on Wednesday.

. . .

He estimated the forecast investments in the country by 2015 at USD 132 billion, including USD 55 billion to be spent in the infrastructure.

The national economic growth is forecast to rise eight percent in 2015, Al-Dardari said, adding that unemployment would drop four percent.

Source: Zawya

I was rubbing my eyes when reading this. 132 billion USD by 2015! Not 132 million USD. 132 billion!!! How is this poverty stricken Syria going to attract so much investment?

It's not hard to guess where this astonishing number is coming from. Syria needs to attract annually billions of USD just to keep its head above the water. About 40% of Syrian population are under the age of 15. This means that within the next 15 years the workforce is set to double. For comparison, only about 20% of Iranians are in the same age group. Iran may be struggling with its current double digit unemployment but the situation should improve by the middle of the next decade. Unlike Iran, there is no light for Syria in the end of its decades long unemployment tunnel.

Demographics is only one of Syria's many troubles. This year Syria turned into a net oil importer which is a no small thing for a country used to rely on oil revenues to provide for a lion's share of its budget. No wonder the Syrian budget deficit was reported to balloon to 10% of the GDP this year. On top of this several years of uninterrupted droughts have devastated the agriculture. Agriculture accounts roughly for about 20%-25% of the Syrian GDP and employment and the devastation wrecked by the global warming in Syrian northeast has left the slums around Syrian cities swelling with thousands of climate refugees.

Finally for decades Syria was exporting its unemployment headache to the Persian Gulf region and remittances from Syrian workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries came to constitute an important part of Syrian economy. This year thousands of Syrians were reported returning home as the global crisis was hammering on the Persian Gulf economies. A more permanent threat is the next round of the Saudi jobs nationalization campaign that aims at replacing thousands of foreign workers, many of which are Syrians, with Saudis.

Syria's situation now is similar to that of a bicycle. If it stops moving forward fast, it will fall to the ground. The economy needs to grow by 6%-7% every year just to keep the country's economic and social woes from getting worse. Failure to maintain such an elevated rate of economic growth would mean going back in terms of unemployment and living standards. The World Bank said Syrian economy would grow only half this rate this and next year because of the impact of the global crisis. So two years are already lost. In fact, they are not lost. Syria will have to do something to make up for the missed growth targets.

Some would say this is too much for one single country to cope with. This is true. Among Arab countries Yemen is considered the most shaky with many analysts expecting its collapse within years. In terms of wretchedness Yemen may be out of competition, but the next very respectable second place plainly belongs to Syria. This country is literally hanging off a cliff. However, as Al-Dardari's comments demonstrate, as long as one has access to good stuff to smoke, nothing looks totally hopeless.

Some people, impressed by Al-Dardari's unhealthy optimism, may want to know where else in the region people have stuff good enough to get themselves so high. Well, in Israel of course. How do we know this? This country has spent decades debating the option of peace with Syria and yet no one has ever asked this simple question: After the Golan Heights are transferred to Syria, how can we be sure that Syria itself continues to exist?

This question is a no idle one since Syria's economic and demographic troubles are layered upon an ethnic structure that is one of the most problematic in the whole region. This country is simply begging to be ripped to pieces. The outstanding feature of Syria's ethnic-sectarian composition is an Alawi minority (should be roughly 10% of the population) ruling a Sunni Arab majority with an iron fist. The Alawi political domination is cemented by Alawis dominating security services and the upper echelons of the Syrian army.

Now a peculiar detail about the Alawis and their rule in Syria is that the Alawis are not exactly Muslims. In fact, a certain confusion exists about this religion since the Alawis keep their sacred books secret. A lonely apostate that once volunteered to shed some light on the Alawi religion has been promptly assassinated. From what is known about this religion it appears as an offshoot of Shiism that's gone astray and ended by incorporating elements of Islam, Christianity and sheer paganism altogether.

Naturally, when a non Muslim minority is ruling a Muslim majority, it should expect troubles. The Syrian regime knows this better than anybody else as it was once almost overthrown by a massive uprising launched by the Syrian department of Muslim Brotherhood. The Alawis tackled this issue in several ways. For one they were actively promoting other Syrian minorities like Ismaili Shias, Druze and Christians. This indeed has extended their support base but hardly made them more palatable for the Sunni Arab majority.

Another thing that the Alawis tried was to get themselves recognized as Muslims. The Alawis are known to have been courting at some point several leading Sunni clerics, but to no avail. Finally they have struck a deal with the leader of the Lebanese Shias, Musa al-Sadr, who recognized them as Twelver Shias, the leading branch of Shia Islam in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. There was one little problem with this recognition, however. Many Sunni Arabs view Shias as heretics and when one heretic recognizes another heretic as a true Muslim this cannot be expected to leave a lasting impression on Sunni Arabs.

The matters are not helped by the fact that the Alawis are known to have occasionally practiced Taqiyya by dissimulating themselves as Sunni Muslims or pretending to follow other religions. Naturally this can only make the Sunnis ever more suspicious about them. Those interested in this stuff can read this piece by Martin Kramer about how the Alawis tried to get themselves confirmed as Muslims, but to put it short - it has never really worked. And because it has never really worked the Alawis were left with only one option: militant pan Arabism. This ideology downplays religious and sectarian antagonisms and stresses the importance of a united Arab front, regardless of whether these are Muslim Arabs, Christians or whoever, against the onslaught of Western colonialist imperialism. In some sense ever since their takeover of Syria, the Alawis have always tried to be more Arabs than the Arabs themselves and transform Syria into the spearhead of Arab nationalism and anti Western resistance.

Basically, this pan Arabist ideology requires two things: a massive propaganda machine and an external enemy. In terms of propaganda the regime has spent decades indoctrinating the living daylights out of the population. After several decades of uninterrupted brainwashing under the Alawi near totalitarian regime, the results are for all to see: Many Israelis who have experience of communicating with Arab bloggers or Arab commenters on forums could notice that Syrians are some of the most close minded and hostile of them all. In terms of external enemies, any visit by the American military to Iraq or Somalia is very welcome of course, but if nobody comes for a visit to the region, the Zionist crusader entity, an outpost of Western colonialism in the Middle East, serves this function just as well.

Basically, after having taken over Syria, the Alawi propaganda machine and pan Arabist ideology have transformed the whole society into a kind of monster which is very likely to devour its creator the very moment the creator fails to live up to the monster's expectations. Active role in the Israeli Arab conflict is one of these expectations the Alawi propaganda machine has made part and parcel of the Syrian national mindset. So, the Israeli Arab conflict has become the very foundation on which the regime in Syria stands. Remove this piece from the puzzle and it will all come down to pieces exposing the Syrian regime for what it is - a coalition of minorities led by the Alawis dominating a heavily oppressed and impoverished Sunni Arab majority. Without the Israeli Arab conflict, Syria, in its current configuration, can hardly survive as a nation.

It's hard to imagine tomorrow after Syria goes, but it may look like this: Amidst anarchy and sectarian strife, the Syrian Kurds establish a semi state similar to one they have now in Iraq. The Alawis barricade themselves in Latakia, a Syrian province where the majority of them are concentrated, cutting the rest of the country from the Mediterranean. It's not clear what other Syrian groups can do, but in this scenario the Sunni Arab heartland is very likely to be taken over by Muslim Brothers, Al Kaida style organizations and their likes in a process similar to what Iraqi Sunni provinces used to be a year ago. I leave it to the readers to guess as to who of these is more likely to take over the Golan Heights in case peace is already in place by the time it happens.

In practical terms it all comes down to this. The tremendous economic and social challenges facing Syria make the survival of the current regime, and actually of the whole country, a very tentative proposition. But without certainty about the future of Syria, trading the Golan Heights in exchange for peace becomes one of the most risky, some would say unwise, experiments in peace making Israel has ever tried. Neither Syria is very likely to be interested in genuine peace with Israel for the very simple reason of the anti Western resistance card providing the regime with the only glue that can keep the country together. Finally, even if by any miracle somebody succeeds to entice Syria into genuine normalization with Israel and the West, such a peace may quickly become the cause of Syria's undoing since it will deprive the regime of its raison d'être, the Israeli Arab conflict, which is the primary tool, besides Syria's ruthless security agencies, with which the Alawi regime imposes a semblance of unity on the country.

Really, it requires a lot of effort to ignore such obvious facts and some people may now start wondering after reading this as to why these issues almost never come up when Israeli politicians or media debate the Syrian option. The last two decades in Israel have seen many public debates regarding the Syrian option. These debates have been occasionally paralleled by always unsuccessful attempts to engage the regime. It's very telling that during these debates real questions were almost never asked.

One of these real questions should be this: What is the point of trying to trade land for peace with a country whose future is so uncertain as the future of Syria is? Another one: Why should we believe that the other side is interested in normalization when we know how central the Israeli Arab conflict is to the ideology of this regime? Yet another one: What is the point of dragging to negotiations a regime that may disintegrate and be devoured by its population the very moment it stops waving the flag of anti Israel and anti Western resistance?

There may be many fancy explanations for the absence of these questions, but my favorite one is that Syrian Economics Minister is not the only person in the region who is high on something. Al-Dardari may fancy himself with the idea that he smokes good stuff, but he should know that his colleagues on the other side of the border may be smoking something even better.


I briefly touch on Syrian demographics in this post. Those interested in the Alawi religion may find a brief and succinct account of this religion here. Some would dismiss it because it's written by Christian missionaries. However, my impression is that it's actually better than anything else I read until now because it's written with a very practical purpose in mind - to assist missionaries who proselytize is Syria and North Africa. These people can't afford to entertain themselves with fancy notions about the Alawi religion, they should know the stuff they are working with. So such accounts usually tend to be technical, precise and free of usual PC and other claptrap.

August 28, 2009

What do Sunnis intend for Alawis?

Posted on Syrian Comment in 2006. Written by an Alawi, it's a view from a very special perspective. Some parts of it are a very good example of how playing into controlled tensions with the West (and actually everybody around) has become vital for the survival of the regime. It's also a very frank and blunt account of how much the Alawis dominate Syria's power structures. So go read it: What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following Regime change?

Among others a section of the letter that deals with the structure of the Syrian army makes a very interesting read.

4. The organization of the Army and security forces was masterminded very cleverly by the late president Hafez Assad to prevent coups similar to those that rocked Syria during the three decades after Syrian independence. The Syrian forces capable of carry out a coup-d’etat (Army, Special Forces, Police Force, and Security Apparatuses) are all bulky and centralized with an extremely complicated command structure, purposefully designed to frustrate plotters. Lateral communication is absolutely forbidden between units; all communications between units must travel through a cumbersome vee, first ascending up the command structure to the top level of one unit before descending down again through the ranks of the other unit. Most importantly, the many units and departments have an interlocking command structure so that no entity is autonomous. They cannot act without several other departments knowing about it. For example, any air force unit is under the influence of aerial-security (Mukhabarat Jawiyyah), army-security (Mukhabarat Askariyyah), the morale-guidance headquarters (Idarat el Tawjih al-manawi), military police, air force headquarters, army general headquarters, the Republican Guards, and the Palace. Officers with loyalties to theses various branches of security are sprinkled liberally throughout the security forces. This command structure makes the military practically useless against foreign enemies because of its stultifying array of conflicting loyalties, but extremely effective at guaranteeing internal stability. Any attempt to rebel is quickly thwarted and can be dealt with on the spot.

Now compare it to something published by the Middle East Quarterly in 1999

Combined Arms Operations

. . .

Third, Middle Eastern rulers routinely rely on balance-of-power techniques to maintain their authority.30 They use competing organizations, duplicate agencies, and coercive structures dependent upon the ruler's whim. This makes building any form of personal power base difficult, if not impossible, and keeps the leadership apprehensive and off-balance, never secure in its careers or social position. The same applies within the military; a powerful chairman of the joint chiefs is inconceivable.

Joint commands are paper constructs that have little actual function. Leaders look at joint commands, joint exercises, combined arms, and integrated staffs very cautiously for all Arab armies are a double-edged sword. One edge points toward the external enemy and the other toward the capital. The land forces are at once a regime-maintenance force and threat at the same time. No Arab ruler will allow combined operations or training to become routine; the usual excuse is financial expense, but that is unconvincing given their frequent purchase of hardware whose maintenance costs they cannot afford. In fact, combined arms exercises and joint staffs create familiarity, soften rivalries, erase suspicions, and eliminate the fragmented, competing organizations that enable rulers to play off rivals against one another. This situation is most clearly seen in Saudi Arabia, where the land forces and aviation are under the minister of defense, Prince Sultan, while the National Guard is under Prince Abdullah, the deputy prime minister and crown prince. In Egypt, the Central Security Forces balance the army. In Iraq and Syria, the Republican Guard does the balancing.

Politicians actually create obstacles to maintain fragmentation. For example, obtaining aircraft from the air force for army airborne training, whether it is a joint exercise or a simple administrative request for support of training, must generally be coordinated by the heads of services at the ministry of defense; if a large number of aircraft are involved, this probably requires presidential approval. Military coups may be out of style, but the fear of them remains strong. Any large-scale exercise of land forces is a matter of concern to the government and is closely observed, particularly if live ammunition is being used. In Saudi Arabia a complex system of clearances required from area military commanders and provincial governors, all of whom have differing command channels to secure road convoy permission, obtaining ammunition, and conducting exercises, means that in order for a coup to work, it would require a massive amount of loyal conspirators. Arab regimes have learned how to be coup-proof.

Source: Why Arabs Lose Wars


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