The Economist Online
GET PAST the leather-clad man at checkpoint when you enter Homs and you heave a sigh of relief. Syria has long inspired paranoia: conversations are conducted in whispers, and software is downloaded to beat the internet monitors. During meetings phones, all assumed to be tapped, are left on top of fridges so that only their whirring can be heard. But in the past two months that has grown even more acute. Most interviews are done via Skype, code-words are used on the phone, meetings are abandoned at any sign of men in leather jackets, the uniform of the security forces.
A trip to Homs, an industrial city 100 miles north of Damascus, seemed worth the risk. It is is a microcosm of the rest of the country; Sunnis live alongside minority Christians and Alawites and tribal families rub shoulders with the poor and the educated elite. Largely ignored by foreign visitors but a lively hub of intellectual and café life, Homs has been subject to a heavy security and military crackdown in which scores have been killed since protests began in March. The worst came after a sit-in on April 18th at Clock Tower square. Tanks have now withdrawn to the outskirts of the city—lined up along the road to the restless villages to the north of Rastan and Telbiseh—but the atmosphere remains tense.
It is a pleasant town with glassy cafes next to old souqs and new concrete low-rise neighbourhoods. Bar the checkpoints, things seem normal. But dig a little deeper and there is much more to it. Introduced by a local friend to "safe" people in the city, the divisions between the protesters and the rest of the population are immediately apparent. The former have become an underground club. The weather and family matters dominate conversations with acquaintances who cannot be trusted. With others who have been vouched for, talk turns to the latest demonstration or person to go missing. Suspicions of the Alawites, the sect to which the president, Bashar Assad, belongs, are frequently raised.
The government's opponents are more willing to talk than I had expected. "So much is happening that is not being seen; we've had no-one to tell," says one enthusiastic protester in his twenties, talking so fast it is hard to keep notes. I visit him in his house, a small ornate flat in the city suburbs. Small cups of cardamom-infused coffee, juice and biscuits are served immediately. Hospitality is not comprised, even in times of trouble. His mother, a slight woman, unveiled in the privacy of her house, is wary, anxious to check that none of their names or the location of their house will be disclosed. Her son, however, is so eager to talk.
He talks and talks, flitting between different stories: about what happened on April 18th when, he says, "many more were killed than the media knew about"; about small protests that have popped up and been put down; about his escape from security forces by jumping out of a third floor window and why he could not seek medical help for the bruises on his face; about friends plucked from protests who have not been heard from since; about how he does not believe that the president is calling the shots but rather Maher, his younger brother.
And then he returns to the night in Clock Tower square. "It was so amazing, you can't imagine," he says, smiling. It was the only event that has come close to the atmosphere of Tahrir Square in Egypt, a sight which inspired him and his friends. People set up tents and local restaurants provided food. Women and children had their own special areas. Alawites and Christians protested alongside each other. Then boof! At about two o'clock in the morning the security forces started shooting. The violence has continued since then.
We get back in the car to drive to the clock tower, past the old souqs and the Christian area of Hamidiyeh where protesters say they were given water. Boarded windows are the only sign of the trouble; it has been cleaned up well. We head to Bab Sbaa, a predominantly Sunni neighbourhood where demonstrations have been daily, but circle back after spying heavy checkpoints on the sandbagged corners and head for Baba Amro instead. Security forces at a impromptu checkpoint marked by a small minibus wave us by. We enter the area. It is not as badly shelled as news reports had suggested. The blown-out windows of a blue building at one of the street and a burnt patch of grass on a roundabout hint at the unrest. Members of the security forces apparently scrawled "We will die for you, Bashar" in graffiti and locals rubbed it out. At the other end of the street is a brightly coloured mall with its windows blown out but a hole in the wall already mended.
My host is keen to avoid the Alawite neighbourhoods but we drive past so he can point to the empty streets and shuttered windows. Many in these neighbourhoods and beyond appear to have fled. Next to Bab Tadmor, an area in the heart of the city, just metres away from the expensive cafés, children with matted hair and ragged clothes peep round black metal doorways in crumbling sandy-coloured streets.
This poverty was in part what inspired people to take to the streets, says a flushed 24-year-old man dressed in black jogging pants and a grey sweatshirt when we meet later in the evening. But now the spark is as much the brutal crackdown by the government as it seeks to crush dissent. His enthusiasm is palpable. "I wanted to wait a bit," he says. "But then we saw some people go out, saw the violence and saw what the state television was saying and it made us so angry." He adds: "I have seen amazing things you wouldn't believe, people shot dead, my 73-year-old uncle is missing and we have no idea where he is." He cannot forget one incident in particular: an 18-year-old man near him in a protest in Baba Amro was shot through the neck and the bullet came out of his head, blood spraying everywhere. He says he saw another shot through the chest by what he believes was an exploding bullet, leaving a huge hole in his back. Young men like him have no future in Syria he says. He describes himself a second-class citizen, left behind by others his age with jobs and families. A university graduate, he has no work and cannot afford to buy a house so that he can get married. He had, he says, no hope. Until now.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Dear Syrians in the homeland and in Diaspora
The uprising of our great people has entered its tenth week as the Syrians continue to write their epic of bravery and heroism through peaceful rallies and the insistence on national unity despite the regime's attempts to divide us through its usage of false propaganda.
What Syria is witnessing today is rooted in our political, economic and social lives. Change is only possible through comprehensive national change that would see Syria transition from a state of tyranny to a state of freedom, and from the current regime under the single party leader of the state and society to a state of institutions living in democracy. Change is only possible by transitioning from the power of the individual-ruler to the power of the people.
Therefore, given our humane, national and ethical commitment to the sacrifice of our people, we come together – opposition parties, civil and law organizations, national figures and independent activists – to hold a national conference during which we will discuss the situation in our country and the possible means to do what it takes to support the struggle of the sons and daughters of our heroic people.
By the end of the convention, we hope to draft a statement that lives up to the aspirations of the rebels and devise means for their support in Arab, regional and international forums on our way to achieve the comprehensive change that we all aspire for.
We hereby reaffirm that the convention is not based on premeditated results, but will rather work to arrive at conclusions without any foreign mandate. We also affirm that the final word remains with the Syrian street in what we look for and what we work for, which is supporting the struggle of our people on its way to restore its freedom and dignity, initiating required change and building a political system that is civil and democratic and that allows the Syrians to choose their representatives with their free will and through the ballot boxes.
Finally, to the parents of our martyrs – both civilian and military – we offer our condolences and our respects to their sons and daughters who opened the way to freedom with their blood. We reaffirm our commitment to follow in their footsteps toward freedom. Syria will be always indebted to them.
This is the first and only statement from the Syrian Conference for Change. Victory to our people's uprising for freedom and dignity.
Antalya, May 27, 2011
The Security Council,
Expressing grave concern at the situation in Syria and condemning the violence and use of force against its people,
Welcoming the Secretary-General’s statements articulating continued concerns about the on-going violence and humanitarian needs, and calling for an independent investigation of all killings during recent demonstrations,
Welcoming also Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/RES/S-16/1 of 29 April 2011, including the decision to request the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to dispatch a mission to Syria to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law and to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated, with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring full accountability,
Welcoming further the statement of 22 May 2011 of the General Secretariat of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which expressed deep concern over the escalating violence in Syria and called upon the Syrian security forces to show restraint and refrain from targeting innocent civilians,
Considering that the widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place in Syria by the authorities against its people may amount to crimes against humanity,
Expressing concern at the reports of shortages of medical supplies to treat the wounded, caused partly by deliberate prevention of such supplies by the Government of Syria, and at the reports of numerous civilians trying to flee the violence,
Expressing concern also at reports of the discovery of a mass grave in Deraa,
Echoing the Secretary-General’s concern at the humanitarian impact of the violence on a number of Syrian towns, and fully supporting the UN’s humanitarian assessment mission to Syria,
Recalling the Syrian authorities’ responsibility to protect its population, and to allow unhindered and sustained access for humanitarian aid and humanitarian organisations,
Underlining the need to respect the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of expression, including freedom of the media and access for international media,
Noting the stated intention of the Government of Syria to take steps for reform, but regretting that the Syrian Government has not responded to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,
Stressing the need to hold to account those responsible for attacks, including by forces under the control of the Government of Syria, on peaceful protesters and other innocent individuals,
Reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria,
Concerned by the risks to regional peace and stability posed by the situation in Syria, mindful of its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security under the Charter of the United Nations, and determined to prevent an aggravation of the situation,
1. Condemns the systematic violation of human rights, including the killings, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and torture of peaceful demonstrators, human rights defenders and journalists by the Syrian authorities, and expresses deep regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians,
2. Demands an immediate end to the violence and for steps to address the legitimate aspirations of the population;
3. Calls upon the Syrian authorities to:
(a) act with the utmost restraint, respect human rights and international humanitarian law, refrain from any reprisals against those that have taken part in peaceful demonstrations, and allow immediate, unhindered and sustained access for international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies and workers;
(b) take concrete measures to meet legitimate popular demands, including by adopting comprehensive reforms aimed at allowing genuine political participation, inclusive dialogue and effective exercise of fundamental freedoms, and by promptly implementing the abolition of the High Security Court and the lifting of measures restricting the exercise of fundamental freedoms;
(c) immediately release all prisoners of conscience and arbitrarily detained persons, and cease any intimidation, persecution, torture and arbitrary arrests of individuals, including lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists;
(d) immediately lift the siege of Deraa and other affected towns, restore medical, fuel and electricity supplies and communications, and allow immediate and unfettered access by the UN’s humanitarian assessment mission and human rights monitors;
(e) immediately lift restrictions on all forms of media, allow access to international media, and allow access to the Internet and telecommunications networks;
(f) launch a credible and impartial investigation in accordance with its international obligations and hold to account those responsible for attacks against peaceful demonstrators, including by forces under the control of the Syrian Government; and
(g) co-operate fully with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights mission as set forth in Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/RES/S-16/1 of 29 April 2011;
4. Calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the Syrian authorities of arms and related materiel of all types;
5. Requests the Secretary-General to report on implementation of this resolution within 14 days of its adoption;
6. Decides to remain actively seized of the matter.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
A protest in 2009, in Beirut. The slogan reads "Syria pulled out, but left behind their devils
The Arab capital that forced an end to Israeli occupation in 1982, now fears thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Over the past few weeks, Lebanese activists have tried to organize rallies in support of Syrians rising up against their regime, but Assad's Lebanese protégés threatened, and at times physically assaulted, their anti-Assad compatriots signaling that freedom of expression, once a characteristic of Beirut, is now history.
"Twenty-eight hotels in Beirut and across the country refused to allow us to rent a hall to hold a private gathering in support of the Syria protests," Saleh Mashnouk, member of the group Lebanese in Solidarity with the Dignity and Freedom of the Syrian People, told The Majalla.
Last week, Mashnouk and his group reserved a hall at Bristol Hotel for their activity, but militants from pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and Lebanon's Ba’ath Socialist Party—both armed militias—showed up at the hotel and threatened its administration that it should cancel the event.
In a statement, the hotel said it had declined to host the group to "ensure the safety of its guests and staff." This forced Mashnouk to look elsewhere and his group was obliged to hold their gathering at a private basement in Sin El-Feel, a suburb to the east of Beirut. "This was the only space we could find," Mashnouk said. "Today's conference shows that threats and intimidation will not scare us," he added.
Elias Khoury, Lebanon's most prominent novelist, wrote in his column: "I haven't seen Beirut as sad as she is today." He added: "I have never seen Beirut unable to speak and as shy as she is today. Even when she was under [1982 Israeli] bombardment, Beirut was not as scared."
"This city does not look like Beirut, for Beirut knows that silence makes her a partner in the crime.
"In Damascus a people are being shot dead and their faces are being stepped on with shoes... Damascus is not far from Beirut, but Beirut is far from itself."
He wrote that Beirut's squares have been uncharacteristically empty because "whenever men and women dare to light candles to remember Syria's martyrs, thugs of the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus show up, step on the candles, and shout pro-dictator slogans." Khoury, however, concluded: "The era of fear will end and become a memory that we will not want to remember."
Meanwhile, during the gathering in Sin El-Feel, Syrian activist Razan Zaytouneh—whose husband Wael Hamada and his brother Abdulrahman were detained on 12 May and 30 April respectively, provoking calls from world organizations such as Amnesty International—addressed the crowd.
"My country is beautiful and strong against tyranny and tyrants," she said. Zaytouneh, who has been hiding since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising on 15 March, added: "From Damascus to Beirut I send you all a bouquet of Jasmine and love until we meet in freedom."
Beirut, traditionally the capital of Arab freedom, has been cowered into silence. Perhaps decades of Syrian dominance over Lebanon has turned it into a city like any other fearful Syrian city. But in Syria, cities are standing up for their freedom. Whether Beirut will follow suit and rise up against its tyranny is yet to be seen.
A 25-year-old university student tells Amnesty International of the beatings and torture he and other detainees suffered while held in a sports stadium after he was seized with his 73- year-old father by security forces from their home in the coastal town of Banias on 8 May.
“Several soldiers knocked at the door, asked us to come with them for five minutes because the officer wanted to see our IDs. We went with them and there were many other men and boys being taken from their homes like us. They gathered us under Ras al-Naba’ Bridge, which is at the Ras al-Naba’ neighbourhood where armed clashes between the army and a few armed men had taken place last month [April].
“There were five Toyota buses, each accommodating 24 passengers, and a Mazda bus that accommodates 31 passengers, as well as military vehicles. I stayed away from my father because if they had hit my father in front of me, we would both have felt very bad.
“On the bus, three soldiers accompanying us started hitting men who were sitting in the front seats. I was sitting in the back. Then, the bus stopped in al-Qooz [an Alawite part of Banias] for a few minutes. We were led out of the bus and a soldier was passing by with scissors cutting off detainees’ locks of hair randomly. He cut off a lock of my hair at the back of my head for no reason.
“Then they took us to the sports stadium at the end of Corniche Street in Banias. When I stepped down off the bus, they blindfolded me and tied my hands in front of me with plastic wires. Some had their hands tied behind their back. Then they started hitting us. They made us all sit on our knees in the stadium’s open parking space. There were hundreds of us, so we were sitting close to each other.
“Soldiers wearing green camouflage uniforms and security people wearing green uniforms would walk around slapping us hard in the face, kicking us with their military boots all over our bodies, especially our backs, and beating us with coshes, batons and clubs.
“Then they would choose certain detainees randomly and drag them a bit away from the others so that they have enough space to beat them hard. One came to me as I was sitting on my knees, placed his shoe on my head and forced it down until my face touched the floor. He asked me: ‘Who is your master?’ I said: ‘Bashar al-Assad.’ He left me. The same thing happened to my friend, but the soldier banged my friend’s head on the floor with his shoe until he bled from his nose and mouth. He kept asking him, ‘Who is your God?’ and did not leave him until he said: ‘Bashar al-Assad.’
“If the blindfold slipped down, one of them would hit me and tie it up. When anyone of us asked for water, a soldier would throw some on our head and prevent us from drinking. If anyone asked to go to the toilet, they would say: ‘Pee in your pants.’ And some later told me that they peed in their trousers. You could see the big stains.
“I remember hearing a man pleading with them as he cried, saying that he had asthma, but they didn’t care.
“We all stayed like that, sitting on our knees, beaten badly and sworn at from around 2pm until 5.30pm. Then they ordered us to stand up and wait to register our names. As we were waiting, three soldiers came and asked me, a cousin, a neighbour and a friend to step out of the queue. One at a time, we were beaten with a long thick piece of wood that is usually used in construction. Two soldiers held me tight and the third struck me with all his strength with this piece of wood on the back of my legs. He hit me that way three times and I fell down. It was so terrible.
“Then after one hour of waiting to register our names, we were taken to the athletes’ dormitory, which consists of a long corridor with large rooms. They packed each room with dozens of us. As I sat on my knees, my body became stuck to those sitting next to me. Then the security asked that we move to make passageways. Of course they needed these passageways so that they could pass between us and reach and hit all of us.
“I was on the edge of one of these ‘passageways’, which meant that I was easily reachable and was beaten badly. One slapped me so hard on my ear that I kept hearing buzzing for over two hours.
“They were particularly targeting those men with long beards [possibly perceived as Islamists opposed to the state] in their beatings. There was one man with a long beard who was a sailor, not an Islamist. They beat him so badly on his face, he bled a lot. My blindfold was set up a bit and when I tilted my head back, I could see.
“After several hours, they gave us a bit of water in the dormitory and allowed us to go to the toilet, only for peeing.
“Two incidents during detention made me feel very bad. One related to my cousin. He is also my friend and was among the detainees. His eyesight is so weak that he is almost blind. He told the security: ‘I can’t see. I have a card that shows I have disabilities.’ They came to him and started beating him hard. I saw blood had run down from behind his ears on both sides.
“The other incident is related to a boy of possibly 15 years old or less. He had blisters on the back of one of his hands… I asked fellow detainees what had happened to his hand and they told me the blisters were caused by the security personnel burning him using a lighter.
“A doctor, who is around 32 and works at the Jam’iyat al-Birr wa al-Khadamat Hospital was beaten so badly that his hand was broken. The security said the hospital treated what they called ‘terrorists’.
“My friend told me that he was sitting near a schoolteacher we know well, who is in his sixties. He was beaten badly despite his age. My friend told me that the schoolteacher addressed two of those who were beating him and reminded them that he had taught them in the past when they were younger. They just didn’t care.
“When it was around 11pm, a senior officer came in and ordered the beatings to stop, and they did. When it was time to sleep, one detainee put his head on my thigh, another put his head on my stomach and I had to place my head on the belly of a detainee. It was hard to sleep that way. I just couldn’t.
“The following day, we were not beaten up. Many of us were told that we were going to be released, but others remain held there until today. We had to pass by representatives of several security agencies, give our names and if our name was not on any of the lists, we were allowed to leave.”
Benjamin Netanyahu reacted negatively to President Obama’s Thursday speech. (AFP photo/Jim Watson)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in reaction to US President Barack Obama’s speech last week that Israel will not be able to defend itself if it retreats to its 1967 border. But reiterating decades-old arguments at a time when change is sweeping the Middle East makes Israel seem anachronistic and in desperate need of new ideas that match the ongoing Arab Spring.
Throughout history, Israel has justified its existence by citing a few concerns, many of them legitimate. But while it became impossible for the Jews to live in German-controlled land under Adolf Hitler, escaping death in Europe does not grant the Jews exclusive sovereignty over Palestine.
The creation of an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine did not come out of nowhere. The experience of minorities living among Muslims in Arab countries explains why non-Muslim groups – whether Jews in Palestine, or Christians in Lebanon and Egypt – fight, or once fought, for exclusive homelands where they wouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens. Even non-Sunni Muslims in the Middle East have voiced frustration, as the Shia of Iraq and Lebanon have always complained that they were rarely treated as equals to their Sunni compatriots.
Over the past few centuries, the Middle East has been a tough area to live in. Different religious and ethnic groups vied for absolute power, with many of them trying to carve out exclusive states. Whether Sunni Caliphates or Shia republics, religious states have been the norm in the region.
Israel has reiterated the idea that Jews were never given equal rights in Arab Muslim countries, and that therefore a purely Jewish state was needed. Israel has also cited the danger from Arab rogue states and their ongoing tirades against Israel as another justification for its need to be able to defend itself. Israel has maintained that it is not interested in talking about peace with terrorist groups such as Fatah in the past and Hamas and Hezbollah today.
But times change. Yitzhak Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to observe Jewish disadvantage when it comes to demographics. He reasoned that if Israel says that Palestinians do not exist, like it used to do until 1993, they would not just disappear.
Rabin also realized that his government would not be able to get away with whatever past Israeli governments had done, such as expelling Palestinians to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. With unstoppable news coverage, it became nearly impossible to "transfer" Palestinians to neighboring lands.
In a breakthrough step, Israel started dialogue with Fatah in 1993, which until then did not admit Israel's existence. Land for peace was the guiding principle of that period.
In the decade that followed, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders perfected the art of double talk. In public, they promised peace. In private they vowed to keep "all the land." Duplicity, however, backfired. It killed the chance of peace, and it dampened international interest. Now the Israelis have to face Palestinian demographics on their own. Without prospects for peace, and therefore a better future and heightened standards of living, Palestinians have become agitated, further aggravating Israel's problem in dealing with them.
While the whole world, including Obama, understands this, only Israel lives in denial. According to Netanyahu, Israel will not withdraw to the 1967 borders. It will not stop building settlements. No refugees, even in symbolic numbers, will be allowed to return. There will be no bargaining over Jerusalem, and Israel will negotiate only with those who admit its existence beforehand. But even when "unconditional" peace talks start, what exactly will be on the table?
No one buys Israeli peace promises anymore. Only America is forced to believe them, at least publically. After all, only Barack Obama, not the whole world, is standing for reelection and needs pro-Israeli Americans’ votes and support.
Not only does most of the world not believe Netanyahu, the excuses for Israel's existence as a purely Jewish state are being challenged with time and the ongoing revisiting of old paradigms about the nation-state, citizenship and democracy. Arab autocrats are falling, and radical Islamist groups too. Already Hamas has turned coat, with its patron, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, shaken. Soon, Israel will lose another foe with which to legitimize its self-defense machine when Hezbollah starts losing ground, too.
When minorities become citizens with equal rights throughout the Middle East, and when Hamas and Hezbollah become irrelevant, Israel will have little justification to stay as the world's only exclusive Spartan state.
When the Middle East spring blossoms, Israel will be living alone and fighting imaginary wars to defend its never-drawn borders.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Left Wael Hamada, right his brother Abdulrahman Hamada
Amnesty International: Syrian brothers, ‘Abd al-Rahman Hammada and Wa’el Hammada, have been detained incommunicado at an unknown location since 30 April and 12 May respectively. They are at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Political activist Wa’el Hammada, aged 35, and his wife, Razan Zaitouneh, a leading human rights activist, went into hiding in April. They feared being arrested because of their peaceful activities in relation to the current popular protests calling for political reform.
On 30 April, ‘Abd al-Rahman Hammada, a 20-year old accountant student, went to the couple’s flat to get them some clothes. Armed men from one of Syria’s security and intelligence agencies arrived a few minutes after his arrival and forced ‘Abd al-Rahman Hammada to phone his brother to ask him to come to the flat. Wa’el Hammada did not go however, as he correctly guessed it was a trap. The armed officials then arrested ‘Abd al-Rahman Hammada although, according to the family, he has not been involved in the protests. Twelve days later Wa’el Hammada was arrested at his workplace.
Both men continue to be detained. They are held incommunicado and their whereabouts are unknown; the Syrian authorities have not said where they are being held. They are at high risk of torture; torture of detainees is routine and systematic in Syria and committed with impunity. Razan Zaitouneh told Amnesty International, “We are constantly distressed as we have not heard anything about my husband or his brother since their arrests.”
Amnesty International believes that both men are prisoners of conscience, with Wa’el Hammada detained solely for legitimately exercising his rights to freedom of expression and association and ‘Abd al-Rahman Hammada apparently detained solely on account of his family relationship with Wa’el Hammada.
The Syrian army and security forces have been carrying out mass arrests since mid-March, when popular protests called for political reform and increasingly for the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, to step down. The arrests particularly took place in the cities and towns that witnessed the height of popular protests. In the coastal city of Banias for example, all males above the age of 15 were rounded up. The arrests have also targeted people perceived to have organized or openly supported those protests, whether orally in public gatherings, in the media, on the internet or elsewhere. They include political and human rights activists, mosque imams and journalists. These mass arrests have forced a number of political and human rights activists to go into hiding.
Amnesty International believes that many of those detained are likely to be prisoners of conscience, held merely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association by peacefully supporting or taking part in protests. For more information on the mass arrests, see the recent Urgent Action.
Despite the fear of arrest Razan Zaitouneh described the arrest of her brother-in-aw to Amnesty International as follows:
“‘Abd al-Rahman Hammada, went to our flat on 30 April to get us some clothes as we were already in hiding. Minutes after his arrival armed men showed up. ‘Abd al-Rahman immediately called my husband, Wa’el, and told him that armed men are surrounding the building and on the roof. He said that they are hammering at the door and threatening to break it if he does not allow them in. ‘Abd al-Rahman was trapped there for a whole hour and only opened the door, according to eye witnesses, after the armed men apparently told him that they would do him no harm. We later learned that once ‘Abd al-Rahman opened the door, the armed men broke in violently and turned the flat upside down!
‘Abd al-Rahman then called Wa’el and asked him to come to the flat as he needs money. Wa’el replied that the money is in the drawer. ‘Abd al-Rahman then said that that is not enough. We knew that it was a trap as we left plenty of money in the flat. So Wa’el immediately asked his brother: Are you ok? What is happening? At that point the phone turned off and we never heard from ‘Abd al-Rahman after that.
Since the beginning of the unrest, we have been living in constant fear of arrest and intolerable agony over the safety of those arrested. So far thousands have been detained.”
Sunday, May 22, 2011
As Prepared for Delivery
Good morning! Thank you, Rosy, for your very kind introduction. But even more, thank you for your many years friendship. Back in Chicago, when I was just getting started in national politics, I reached out to a lot of people for advice and counsel, and Rosy was one of the very first. When I made my first visit to Israel, after entering the Senate, Rosy – you were at my side every step of that very meaningful journey through the Holy Land. And I want to thank you for your enduring friendship, your leadership and for your warm welcome today.
Thank you to David Victor, Howard Kohr and all the Board of Directors. And let me say that it’s wonderful to look out and see so many great friends, including Alan Solow, Howard Green and a very large delegation from Chicago.
I want to thank the members of Congress who are joining you today—who do so much to sustain the bonds between the United States and Israel—including Eric Cantor, Steny Hoyer, and the tireless leader I was proud to appoint as the new chair of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
We’re joined by Israel’s representative to the United States, Ambassador Michael Oren. As well as one of my top advisors on Israel and the Middle East for the past four years, and who I know is going to be an outstanding ambassador to Israel—Dan Shapiro. Dan has always been a close and trusted advisor, and I know he’ll do a terrific job.
And at a time when so many young people around the world are standing up and making their voices heard, I also want to acknowledge all the college students from across the country who are here today. No one has a greater stake in the outcome of events that are unfolding today than your generation, and it’s inspiring to see you devote your time and energy to help shape the future.
Now, I’m not here to subject you to a long policy speech. I gave one on Thursday in which I said that the United States sees the historic changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as a moment of great challenge, but also a moment of opportunity for greater peace and security for the entire region, including the State of Israel.
On Friday, I was joined at the White House by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we reaffirmed that fundamental truth that has guided our presidents and prime ministers for more than 60 years—that, even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will, the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.
A strong and secure Israel is in the national security interest of United States not simply because we share strategic interests, although we do both seek a region where families and their children can live free from the threat of violence. It’s not simply because we face common dangers, although there can be no denying that terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons are grave threats to both our nations.
America’s commitment to Israel’s security also flows from a deeper place —and that’s the values we share. As two people who struggled to win our freedom against overwhelming odds, we understand that preserving the security for which our forefathers fought must be the work of every generation. As two vibrant democracies, we recognize that the liberties and freedom we cherish must be constantly nurtured. And as the nation that recognized the State of Israel moments after its independence, we have a profound commitment to its survival as a strong, secure homeland of the Jewish people.
We also know how difficult that search for security can be, especially for a small nation like Israel in a tough neighborhood. I’ve seen it firsthand. When I touched my hand against the Western Wall and placed my prayer between its ancient stones, I thought of all the centuries that the children of Israel had longed to return to their ancient homeland. When I went to Sderot, I saw the daily struggle to survive in the eyes of an eight-year old boy who lost his leg to a Hamas rocket. And when I walked among the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, I grasped the existential fear of Israelis when a modern dictator seeks nuclear weapons and threatens to wipe Israel off the map.
Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. And it’s why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels.
That includes additional support – beyond regular military aid – for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. This is a powerful example of American-Israel cooperation which has already intercepted rockets from Gaza and helped saved innocent Israeli lives. So make no mistake, we will maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge.
You also see our commitment to our shared security in our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Here in the U.S., we’ve imposed the toughest sanctions ever on the Iranian regime. At the United Nations, we’ve secured the most comprehensive international sanctions on the regime, which have been joined by allies and partners around the world. Today, Iran is virtually cut off from large parts of the international financial system, and we are going to keep up the pressure. So let me be absolutely clear – we remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Its illicit nuclear program is just one challenge that Iran poses. As I said on Thursday, the Iranian government has shown its hypocrisy by claiming to support the rights of protesters while treating its own people with brutality. Moreover, Iran continues to support terrorism across the region, including providing weapons and funds to terrorist organizations. So we will continue to work to prevent these actions, and will stand up to groups like Hezbollah who exercise political assassination, and seek to impose their will through rockets and car bombs.
You also see our commitment to Israel’s security in our steadfast opposition to any attempt to de-legitimize the State of Israel. As I said at the United Nation’s last year, “Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate,” and “efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States.”
So when the Durban Review Conference advanced anti-Israel sentiment, we withdrew. In the wake of the Goldstone Report, we stood up strongly for Israel’s right to defend itself. When an effort was made to insert the United Nations into matters that should be resolved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, we vetoed it.
And so, in both word and deed, we have been unwavering in our support of Israel’s security. And it is precisely because of our commitment to Israel’s long-term security that we have worked to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Now, I have said repeatedly that core issues can only be negotiated in direct talks between the parties. And I indicated on Thursday that the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas poses an enormous obstacle to peace. No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements. And we once again call on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, who has been kept from his family for five long years.
And yet, no matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under the current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option. The status quo is unsustainable. That is why, on Thursday, I stated publicly the principles that the United States believes can provide a foundation for negotiations toward an agreement to end the conflict and all claims – the broad outlines of which have been known for many years, and have been the template for discussions between the United States, Israelis, and Palestinians since at least the Clinton Administration.
I know that stating these principles – on the issues of territory and security – generated some controversy over the past few days. I was not entirely surprised. I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a President preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy. But as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. I also believe that real friends talk openly and honestly with one another. And so I want to share with you some of what I said to the Prime Minister.
Here are the facts we all must confront. First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder – without a peace deal – to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.
Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace.
And third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.
Just as the context has changed in the Middle East, so too has it been changing in the international community over the last several years. There is a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations. They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process – or the absence of one. Not just in the Arab World, but in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia. That impatience is growing, and is already manifesting itself in capitols around the world.
These are the facts. I firmly believe, and repeated on Thursday, that peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict. No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.
Moreover, we know that peace demands a partner – which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist, and we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and their rhetoric.
But the march to isolate Israel internationally – and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations – will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative. For us to have leverage with the Palestinians, with the Arab States, and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success. So, in advance of a five day trip to Europe in which the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest, I chose to speak about what peace will require.
There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. Administrations. But since questions have been raised, let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday.
I said that the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
That is what I said. Now, it was my reference to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps that received the lion’s share of the attention. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.
By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
If there’s a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I have done so because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.
I know that some of you will disagree with this assessment. I respect that. And as fellow Americans and friends of Israel, I know that we can have this discussion.
Ultimately, however, it is the right and responsibility of the Israeli government to make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed. And as a friend of Israel, I am committed to doing our part to see that this goal is realized, while calling not just on Israel, but on the Palestinians, the Arab States, and the international community to join us in that effort. Because the burden of making hard choices must not be Israel’s alone.
Even as we do all that’s necessary to ensure Israel’s security; even as we are clear-eyed about the difficult challenges before us; and even as we pledge to stand by Israel through whatever tough days lie ahead – I hope we do not give up on that vision of peace. For if history teaches us anything—if the story of Israel teaches us anything—it is that with courage and resolve, progress is possible. Peace is possible.
The Talmud teaches us that so long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith. And that lesson seems especially fitting today,
For so long as there are those, across the Middle East and beyond, who are standing up for the legitimate rights and freedoms which have been denied by their governments, the United States will never abandon our support for those rights that are universal.
And so long as there are those who long for a better future, we will never abandon our pursuit of a just and lasting peace that ends this conflict with two states living side by side in peace and security. This is not idealism or naivete. It’s a hard-headed recognition that a genuine peace is the only path that will ultimately provide for a peaceful Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and a Jewish state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Thank you. God bless you. God bless Israel, and God bless the United States of America.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Syrian anti-government protesters hold banners calling for an end to a military siege in Nawa near the southern town of Daraa on April 28, 2011. (AFP/Getty)
By Richard Grenell
It doesn't seem like a gutsy call to put sanctions on a head of state who has jailed protesters and shot peaceful demonstrators since early March. President Barack Obama's overdue call to add Bashar al-Assad to a sanctions list restricting his travel outside of Syria is a slow start to one of the greatest U.S. foreign policy opportunities of our generation. And today's Middle East Speech did nothing more to push Assad.
The end of Assad's regime would be a blow to Iran and help isolate Ahmedinejad's government in the region by removing its main ally and partner in crime. Isolating Iran, especially right now, could have profound consequences for Americans' security, too, since the Iranian government announced it has mastered the technology needed to make a nuclear weapon. The Iranian leader also said that Israel should be wiped off the map.
But the Obama team either believes it can charm Assad into ending his relationship with Iran or doesn't see the strategic importance of ending the Assad-Iran partnership. Obama's engagement policy with Syria and his decision to send a U.S. Ambassador into Damascus normalized relations with a man Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called "a reformer." Assad responded to Obama's overtures and acquiescence with more violence and terror and less reform. But Obama is unfazed. Syria has strengthened its ties with Iran and has continued to send and support terrorists into Iraq, Israel and Lebanon; And Obama can only muster enough outrage to say that Assad must stop using violence against his people.
Syria has allowed Iraqi Sunni insurgents to mobilize and plan attacks from its territory, has been accused by the United Nations of planning and assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and has supported Hezbollah and Hamas efforts to destabilize Israel and Lebanon. The reluctance by Obama and Clinton to act decisively on the Syrian government's brutal actions against its people allows Syria to maintain its position as a legitimate member of the international community. Obama's Middle East missteps have also encouraged neighbors like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to abandon his normally pro-western positions in favor of his comfortable relationship with Assad and Ahmedinejad.
Obama's refusal to call for an end to the Assad regime is consistent with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi's trip in 2007 to Damascus to meet with the Syrian President despite pleas from the Bush Administration to not legitimize the dictator and Vice President Joe Biden's refusal to call for Egypt's Hosni Mubarrak to step down or characterize him as a dictator.
The recent evidence of brutality by Assad's government is undeniable. More than 10,000 people have been arrested, 800 protesters killed and 120 government security forces killed since the protests began. Opposition forces are calling for an end to President Assad's regime and an expansion of economic and civil liberties; a goal Obama should wholeheartedly support.
An April 4th crack-down by government forces was caught on tape and posted on YouTube showing Syrian protesters shot outside a mosque and lying in the street - some dying on camera. (Warning: This video is very graphic.)
Images like these have rallied hundreds of thousands of people throughout Syria to continue fighting for their rights. These compelling stories have also prompted human rights activists to call for more direct action from the White House.
For an Administration that criticized the international community's slow response to Darfur and committed to utilize the United Nations more, little has been done to rally the world to support an obvious U.S. priority. Obama and his Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice haven't forced a vote of the UN Security Council on Syria nor put the UN members on record to either support the protesters or the dictators in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia. While the Arab revolution has unfolded over the last several months, Rice has failed to even offer draft resolutions for discussion. Instead, Rice has allowed Russia and China to dictate the non-agenda.
It's clear from Obama's Middle East speech today that he has sidelined the UN. Team Obama should be applauded for realizing their previous commitments to utilize the UN for all international issues was a foolish campaign promise to look un-Bush (see also: Iraq pullout in one year, closing GITMO, enhanced interrogations, military tribunals).
Obama should speak more forcefully about Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and call for him to step down. He should also immediately withdraw the U.S. Ambassador from Damascus, kick out the Syrian Ambassador in Washington and call upon Europeans to do the same. If Obama believes that the status quo is unsustainable then he should stop supporting it. Timidity is exactly what Assad and Ahmedinejad are looking for.
Bio: Richard Grenell served as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy for the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations during the administration of George W. Bush. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Credit : CBS Interactive Inc.
CNN's Anderson Cooper does a wonderful job during his coverage of Syria's Azadi Friday on May 20, 2011.He interviews Razan Zaytouneh, an activist who is in hiding in Syria for fear of being arrested. She says that Azadi Friday witnessed an exceptionally high number of civilian deaths because Syrian security was firing live rounds across Syria. She argues that Bashar Assad wants to bring the Syrian Revolution to an end by any means, including the usage of excessive and brutal force. Credit: CNN
An extraordinary piece of video footage that surfaced on the Internet in the last 24 hours appears to show uniformed Syrian security forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad and his family opening fire on protesters in the city of Hama on Friday.
At one point, even the amateur cameraman filming the scene with his cellphone camera comes under direct fire.
The video paints a picture of scenes of pandemonium on the streets of Hama, which was the site of a brutal 1982 massacre ordered by Assad's father, Hafez Assad.
Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, were killed in an attempt to quell an uprising against the Assads and instill fear in people living in what human rights activist then described as one of the most brutal and corrupt police states on the planet.
Still, the people of Hama have been taking to the streets, demanding the downfall of Assad's regime. Spokespeople for Assad claim that unidentified "armed groups"are responsible for the violence, a claim rebuffed by independent observers and flatly contradicted by video footage circulating online.
The incident above took place near the city's passport office.
Friday, May 20, 2011
In "Power and Policy in Syria," Radwan Ziadeh captures the essence of Syria's domestic, political and socio-economic scene better than any other book on the subject. In five chapters, this brief manuscript takes readers on a quick tour that covers a bit of history, some domestic politics, Syria's foreign policy and a concluding chapter on the nation's Islamist movement.
Radwan Ziadeh argues in his new book that Syria's current state of affairs can be traced back to what he calls the Third Republic, which started with the Baath Party coup of 1963. According to Ziadeh, the First Republic extended between the country's independence from the French in 1946 and the union with Egypt in 1958. The Second Republic lasted until the union broke down in 1963, when a radical wing of the Baath Party under Salah Jdid took over. In 1970, the party's military wing under Hafez Al-Assad executed the last of a series of coups that riddle Syria's history. Assad took control of the country.
Ziadeh believes that Assad was hesitant at first. While effectively the ruler of Syria, he planned to stay prime minister and appoint a puppet president. Because the constitution stipulated that the country's president should be Muslim, and because Assad was Alawite, he first passed on the idea of becoming president but later changed his mind when his protege, Iranian-born Lebanese Shiite cleric Mussa Sadr, issued a verdict resolving that Alawites were Muslims.
Once president, Assad consolidated his power by building a three-legged pyramid with him at its top and with prerogatives that made of him an undisputed autocrat. Assad realized his lack of constitutional legitimacy, so he turned to "revolutionary legitimacy." In 1973, he went to war with Israel "to liberate the Golan Heights, but he could only 'regain' Al-Qunaytirah." After the war, Assad received big money from oil-rich Arab countries. Together with Syria's oil-revenues, he lavishly spent on his extensive security system. Ziadeh calculates that today, there is one secret police operative for every 256 Syrians.
Oblivious to domestic and economic issues, Assad focused his energy on foreign affairs, invading Lebanon in 1976 and siding with the United States in ejecting Saddam Hussein's Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991, after which Assad was rewarded and a "honeymoon" in relations with Washington ensued and lasted until 2001.
Assad died in 2000. Before his death, he made sure to improve relations with all of Syria's neighbors. By the time his son Bashar had taken over, Syria was living in a more relaxed political atmosphere that came to be known as the Damascus Spring. Ziadeh was active in the debate that took place inside Syria at the time.
The Damascus Spring, however, proved to be short-lived. "The Average age of the country's politicians was in excess of 60 years and almost all of them had risen through the ranks of the Baath Party. Most of them had no academic qualifications or educational expertise and, furthermore, few had been given the opportunity to travel or to observe administrative, technical, scientific, political and social developments in the West," Ziadeh wrote. "For this reason, the country's leaders often had negative views of the projects introduced during the first two years of Bashar Assad's rule,â€ he added.
Ziadeh also wrote that there was "a sense in which the Syrian regime under the 'eternal leader' Hafez Assad (as the official media called him) had been faultless, therefore, Bashar Assad has repeatedly refused to talk about 'reform' and has always answered his critics by saying the terms we use in Syria are development and modernization."
But Ziadeh's perspective on a few foreign policy issues does not seem as informed as his knowledge of Syria's internal situation. He wrote that Lebanon's Hezbollah had scored a limited victory against Israel in 2006, "brought about by courageous defense and killing a large number of Israeli soldiers on the battlefield," and that the so-called victory "gave huge support to the Syrian position and enabled it to consider the option of resistance at a suitable opportunity in the Golan area." He does not reason, however, why in 2011, the "Syrian position" was still considering this "option of resistance" in the Golan area.
Despite the book's shortcomings on Syria's foreign policy, Ziadeh correctly concludes that Damascus should in the future forget its foreign policy ambitions and focus instead on its domestic affairs. This Ziadeh calls "strategic withdrawal" or "strategic retraction."
Ziadeh deserves all the credit for this book. His publishers IB Tauris, however, have done a lousy job. At a price of around $75, the book is riddled with language and factual mistakes. The manuscript seems to be a first draft that went to print without copy-editing. Errors include wrong names, such as "Major General Imad Aoun" (instead of Michel Aoun the Lebanese lawmakers), and assigning the date of the "Hezbollah armed attack on Beirut" as "23 March, 2008" instead of 7 May, 2008.
Also according to this book, the Beirut Arab Peace Initiative with Israel was originally a Syrian idea before it was proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002. In fact, Saudi Arabia was the first to float the idea at the Morocco Arab Summit in 1981, when it came to be known as the Eight-Point Peace Plan or the Fez Initiative. Other errors are as simple as considering that the United Arab Republic consisted of two regions, "Egypt (North) and Syria (South)." A look at the map would simply show that Syria is to the north of Egypt.
Raw footage with English captions from more than 15 cities across Syria showing Syrians protesting and demanding the end of the Bashar Assad regime. Security openned fire and killed at least 10 Syrians. Friday, May 20, 2011
Thursday, May 19, 2011
I want to thank Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark – one million frequent flyer miles. I count on Hillary every day, and I believe that she will go down as of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.
The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy. For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change take place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square; town by town; country by country; the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow. And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith.
Today, I would like to talk about this change – the forces that are driving it, and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security. Already, we have done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we have removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader – Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate – an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build.
Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.
That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It is the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world – the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaint, this young man who had never been particularly active in politics went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.
Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.
The story of this Revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn – no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.
This lack of self determination – the chance to make of your life what you will – has applied to the region’s economy as well. Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.
In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.
But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world – a world of astonishing progress in places like India, Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.
In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.”
In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”
In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”
In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”
Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of non-violence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.
Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily. In our day and age – a time of 24 hour news cycles, and constant communication – people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks. But it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days, and bad days. In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual. And as we have seen, calls for change may give way to fierce contests for power.
The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.
We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they are essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks. People everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut off in energy supplies. As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.
Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways – as Americans have been seared by hostage taking, violent rhetoric, and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens – a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities.
That’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then – and I believe now – that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.
So we face an historic opportunity. We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.
As we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo – it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome. Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region. But we can – and will – speak out for a set of core principles – principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months:
The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.
And finally, we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.
Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest– today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.
Let me be specific. First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.
That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high –as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab World’s largest nation. Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections; a vibrant civil society; accountable and effective democratic institutions; and responsible regional leadership. But our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.
Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have been answered by violence. The most extreme example is Libya, where Moammar Gaddafi launched a war against his people, promising to hunt them down like rats. As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene, we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force – no matter how well-intended it may be.
But in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed. The message would have been clear: keep power by killing as many people as it takes. Now, time is working against Gaddafi. He does not have control over his country. The opposition has organized a legitimate and credible Interim Council. And when Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.
While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it is not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power. Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens. The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime – including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him.
The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad
Thus far, Syria has followed its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression. This speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet suppresses its people at home. Let us remember that the first peaceful protests were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail. We still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Tehran. The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory. And we will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights, and a government that does not smother their aspirations.
Our opposition to Iran’s intolerance – as well as its illicit nuclear program, and its sponsorship of terror – is well known. But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today. That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that is true, today, in Bahrain.
Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.
Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.
So in the months ahead, America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region. Even as we acknowledge that each country is different, we will need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike. Our message is simple: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States. We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people.
We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo – to build networks of entrepreneurs, and expand exchanges in education; to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease. Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths. And we will use the technology to connect with – and listen to – the voices of the people.
In fact, real reform will not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger. In the 21st century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.
Such open discourse is important even if what is said does not square with our worldview. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them. We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy. What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion – not consent. Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and respect for the rights of minorities.
Such tolerance is particularly important when it comes to religion. In Tahrir Square, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” America will work to see that this spirit prevails – that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them. In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.
What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women. History shows that countries are more prosperous and peaceful when women are empowered. That is why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men – by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office. For the region will never reach its potential when more than half its population is prevented from achieving their potential.
Even as we promote political reform and human rights in the region, our efforts cannot stop there. So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that transition to democracy.
After all, politics alone has not put protesters into the streets. The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family. Too many in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day, and perhaps the hope that their luck will change. Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job. Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from them.
The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people. In the recent protests, we see that talent on display, as people harness technology to move the world. It’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of Tahrir Square was an executive for Google. That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street. Just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity.
Drawing from what we’ve learned around the world, we think it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; and investment, not just assistance. The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness; the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young. America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy – starting with Tunisia and Egypt.
First, we have asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G-8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Together, we must help them recover from the disruption of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year. And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.
Second, we do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past. So we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and work with our Egyptian partners to invest these resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship. We will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation. And we will help newly democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.
Third, we are working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt. These will be modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. OPIC will soon launch a $2 billion facility to support private investment across the region. And we will work with allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.
Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.
Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress – the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect. We will help governments meet international obligations, and invest efforts anti-corruption; by working with parliamentarians who are developing reforms, and activists who use technology to hold government accountable.
Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.
For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security, prosperity, and empowerment to ordinary people.
My Administration has worked with the parties and the international community for over two years to end this conflict, yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on for decades, and sees a stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward.
I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.
The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.
Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away. But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.
Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. He said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.” And we see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. “I have the right to feel angry,” he said. “So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate…Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow”
That is the choice that must be made – not simply in this conflict, but across the entire region – a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past, and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.
For all the challenges that lie ahead, we see many reasons to be hopeful. In Egypt, we see it in the efforts of young people who led protests. In Syria, we see it in the courage of those who brave bullets while chanting, ‘peaceful,’ ‘peaceful.’ In Benghazi, a city threatened with destruction, we see it in the courthouse square where people gather to celebrate the freedoms that they had never known. Across the region, those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy by those who are prying lose the grip of an iron fist.
For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful civil war that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of non-violence as a way to perfect our union – organizing, marching, and protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”
Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa – words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.