December 22/07

Bible Reading of the day
Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke 1,39-45.  During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

Releases. Reports & Opinions
Who is Threatening the Opportunity of General Suleiman?By: Elias Harfoush.Al-Hayat. December 21/07
Sarkozy, Arabs and Lebanon. By: Randa Takieddine.Al-Hayat. December 21/07
Where Is Bashar al-Assad Heading?by Eyal Zisser.December 21/07

Latest News Reports From Miscellaneous Sources for December 21/07
Hezbollah says Bush proposal threatens Lebanon stability-Reuters
Sfeir: Presidency is Lost, Nation is Crippled, Government is Amputated-Naharnet
Will Suleiman Give Opposition Veto Power?-Naharnet
Suleiman Surprised at Opposition's Lack of Confidence in Him-Naharnet
Syria Risks Isolation Over Presidential Crisis?-Naharnet
Parrant: Vacuum has Negative Affect on Christians
Gemayel Fears Election Postponement is designed to Change System
Hariri Scolds Syria, Urges Opposition to Cut Ties with Damascus
Geagea: We will not Succumb to Blackmail
Geagea: March 14 to Ask Government to Send Constitutional Amendment Bill to Parliament
Lebanese robbed of Adha , Christmas & New Year spirit-Ya Libnan
Lebanon may witness more assassinations, says An Nahar-Ya Libnan
Abu al-Geith: Efforts Underway to Salvage Lebanon as Contacts with Damascus Continue-Naharnet
Hezbollah reorganizes in Lebanon-Ya Libnan
Bush: No patience for Syria's Assad-AFP
Muallem Attacks Washington's Role in Lebanon, Backs Hizbullah's 'Basket'-Naharnet
Hariri Scolds Syria, Urges Opposition to Cut Ties with Damascus-Naharnet
Israel Upgrading Radar System Following War with Hizbullah-Naharnet
Hogasapian: 'There is no US/ Syria deal at Lebanon's expense-Ya Libnan
Israel, Syria message exchange attempt ends in failure-Ha'aretz

Sfeir: Presidency is Lost, Nation is Crippled, Government is Amputated
Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir said in his Christmas message on Friday that the Lebanese have destroyed their democratic system. "We have destroyed our democratic system and the freedom that has been granted to us, (the freedom) that we cannot find in countries around us," Sfeir said.
"The presidency is lost and we have not been able to elect a head of state for the first time in the history of the republic, Parliament has been crippled for more than a year and the government is amputated with some (cabinet) ministers abstaining from carrying out their duties," he added. "How did we reach this stage of power abuse and we are about to destroy the vitals of the nation," Sfeir asked. "The nation is for all," he stressed. "Let's have mercy on it so it will have mercy on us and on our future generations." Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 09:51

Will Suleiman Give Opposition Veto Power?
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had reportedly informed French presidential envoy Jean-Claude Gueant that Lebanese lawyer Bahij Tabbara has arrived at a formula for an "amendment mechanism" of the Lebanese constitution that would allow the election of Gen. Michel Suleiman as a consensus president.
Well-informed sources in Damascus told the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on Friday that the only obstacle was the majority's acceptance of the concept to give the opposition veto power in a national unity government. The sources said Muallem called Gueant on Thursday to convey Syria's desire in "maintaining contacts to reach a settlement" to the Lebanese political crisis. They said among the issues proposed for a settlement was that Suleiman give one of the seats allotted to him to the opposition in order to provide the opposition with a one-third veto power. The sources indicated that the principle that had been agreed upon between MP Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri regarding the formation of a national unity government suggests that the cabinet be made of 17 seats for the majority in return for 13 for the opposition. Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 08:18

Suleiman Surprised at Opposition's Lack of Confidence in Him

Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman was surprised at the opposition's lack of confidence in him after nine years of cooperation between the military and "key forces in the opposition, particularly the resistance." The pan-Arab al-Hayat on Friday, citing senior opposition leaders who had recently visited Suleiman, said the army general wondered "why do they want me to arrive at the presidency weak and handcuffed at a time when a settlement is allowed to be adopted such as the president's share in the government will be capable of playing a compromise role among all factions."Al-Hayat said the opposition leaders assured Suleiman that they have confidence in him but that they aim at "launching the new era with a political accord that provides guarantees for all unsettled problems." Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 11:12

Syria Risks Isolation Over Presidential Crisis?
Asharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted sources in France as saying Friday that Syria is not cooperating with Paris to put an end to the presidential crisis in Lebanon and risked being diplomatically isolated. "Paris does not believe that Syria has cooperated or is cooperating with us to find a way out of the Lebanese crisis," an official source said in response to comments made by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem Thursday. Muallem said that his country was keen to continue coordinating with France to reach a common goal of a consensus president in Lebanon and the formation of a national unity cabinet.
Muallem also accused the United States of blocking a "Syrian-French attempt" to settle the crisis and criticized Paris for not rejecting Washington's approach.
But the source told Asharq al-Awsat that "we couldn't even say that it (Damascus) helped us in the mission we worked on, and the Syrian authorities know that."
The newspaper also quoted French sources as saying that the Assad regime risk going back to diplomatic isolation if it did not cooperate.
Last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that any country which intervened to prevent a deal on the election of a new Lebanese head of state would be isolated on the international stage. Sarkozy also told Arab journalists in Paris this week that he expected "action" and not "words" from Damascus to allow a vote scheduled for Saturday to succeed. The sources said the French government was mulling the issuance of another statement at the U.N. Security Council, stressing the need to hold presidential elections.
The 15-member Council has already issued two strongly worded statements on the crisis. The official source said that Paris was clear in sending two major messages to Damascus: the need to respect Lebanon's sovereignty and refraining from sabotaging the elections. It also blamed the Lebanese, not France, for failing to agree on a successor to Emile Lahoud whose term ended in November. Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 11:47

Parrant: Vacuum has Negative Affect on Christians
Andre Parrant, the French charge d'affairs in Beirut, said that Paris is convinced that the current presidential vacuum in Lebanon is "very grave and unacceptable."
Parrant stressed that election should not be prolonged any further "since it will negatively affect Christians." He also emphasized on the need for both "the majority and the opposition to be ready to elect a new President on Saturday if possible," adding that the party that "hampers the election process should shoulder the responsibility of this blockage." Parrant said his stance not only expresses France's position, but also that of all of Lebanon's friends who met in Paris last Monday under the auspices of U.N. chief Ban ki-Moon. Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 09:20

Gemayel Fears Election Postponement is designed to Change System

Former President Amin Gemayel said that conditions put forward by the opposition and other suggestions appear to be aimed at changing the system in Lebanon.
"We don't understand (the reason behind) this delay as we don't understand the preconditions set before the elections," Gemayel told a delegation of LAU students.
Gemayel reiterated March 14's call for dialogue, "a dialogue that would speed up elections.""But we will not fall into the trap of negotiations," Gemayel said, pointing to the difference between dialogue and negotiations. In response to a question, Gemayel said that efforts are now focused on the election of a new president.
"However, if we face a standoff, then we will look for other options … and we will hold the opposition responsible for these options." Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 14:06

Hariri Scolds Syria, Urges Opposition to Cut Ties with Damascus

Leader of the largest parliamentary bloc Saad Hariri has snapped back at Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, reiterating that the Damascus regime was hampering efforts to elect a new Lebanese president. Hariri, in a statement released Thursday night, said Muallem and Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa are once again presenting new evidence regarding "the Syrian regime's interference in Lebanon's internal affairs, its direct participation in obstructing presidential elections and in prolonging the vacuum in the presidency." Muallem told a group of reporters on Thursday that the United States wants Lebanon's parliamentary majority to monopolize the decision-making in the country.
The Syrian foreign minister, echoing a call by the Hizbullah-led opposition for agreement on a "basket" of conditions prior to facilitating Gen. Michel Suleiman's election, also said: "We believe that forming a national unity government is as important as electing a new president because it would lead to activating all constitutional institutions, ending the (opposition) sit-in (in downtown Beirut) and paving the way for a thorough national dialogue."
Hariri accused Syria of blocking efforts to find a successor to Emile Lahoud as part of a plan with other regional powers to put the "chokehold" on Lebanon and the Lebanese. The MP said the Syrian "agenda" on the "fate" of the presidency and that of the opposition were similar in "explicitly announcing that there would be no new president before agreement on the formation of a national unity cabinet." He said this reveals that Damascus is negotiating over a new Lebanese president rather than the opposition. However, Hariri assured the Lebanese that "the Syrian regime won't return to Lebanon."Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon under local and international pressure in the aftermath of ex-Premier Rafik Hariri's assassination in Feb. 2005. Hariri, in his statement, also urged the opposition to sever its relations with Syria.
"It's time for it to take a historic stand by cutting its ties (with Damascus)," he said. Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 05:47

Geagea: We will not Succumb to Blackmail
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea stressed that the majority March 14 alliance will not succumb to blackmail, adding that dialogue will only take place in Baabda after elections. He called on Gen. Michel Aoun to sit together to discuss inter-Christian issues and not matters concerning the opposition and the majority.
Geagea stressed that the normal place for dialogue is Baabda 'under the auspices of the new president.""Anything else is a waste of time and blackmail," he added.
Geagea accused March 8 Forces of acting "as though there is no constitution in Lebanon." Beirut, 21 Dec 07, 14:00

Geagea: March 14 to Ask Government to Send Constitutional Amendment Bill to Parliament

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said that the March 14 alliance was about to ask the government to send a constitutional amendment bill to Parliament in the hopes that Speaker Nabih Berri would shoulder responsibility and hold elections. "But if he (Berri) didn't respond to this move, I don't think anything else will make him do," Geagea told BBC radio Thursday. "Then it will become clear which party is hampering the elections and contributing to the continuity of a presidential vacuum."
Geagea pointed out that March 14 was not yet considering electing a president by a majority-plus one vote "because our candidate is Gen. Michel Suleiman."
He stressed that the majority "has several alternatives, but our basic option at present is bringing Gen. Suleiman to the presidency because the characteristics of a consensus president fit him most.""This doesn't mean that if the year ends without elections that the chance is lost," Geagea said adding that "we will meet again to assess our position in light of the public stances, then we will determine the steps required to fill the presidential vacuum."
In response to a question about the "American scheme," Geagea said: "The scheme is that of the Lebanese, but we are seeking the help of friends of Lebanon in exerting pressure on external groups to stop blocking the elections, and that is through the Security Council and through America's friendship with many nations."
Beirut, 20 Dec 07, 21:29

Lebanon may witness more assassinations, says An Nahar
Friday, 21 December, 2007 @ 2:00 AM
Beirut - The daily newspaper An Nahar wrote Tuesday that Syria would keep blocking presidential elections in Lebanon until it gains veto powers for its allies in the forthcoming government to control the course of the international tribunal. Columnist Emile Khoury noted that "it has become clear that Syria doesn't want the holding of presidential elections until it guarantees the one-third blocking share for its allies in the forthcoming cabinet." If such a condition is met, Syria "would rest assured regarding the course of the international tribunal," Khoury wrote. He explained that Syria is "worried that the international tribunal might target big heads (in Damascus), and nothing can assure the regime regarding this concern except maintained void or a cabinet in which Syria's allies control a one-third blocking share."
The writer cautioned that void, if maintained for a long time, might lead to security problems, though limited, in addition to other acts of violence, including bomb blasts and assassinations. The time frame for such acts of violence and crimes is related to the date set for the international tribunal to start its mission of trying suspects in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and related crimes.
The tribunal would be in session as of April, and the charge sheet would be released in March "that is why Syria is trying its best to delay the presidential election for the longest possible period," Khoury wrote. Such worries "led Syria to interfere in the presidential election in a sort of race against the international tribunal," he added.
Khoury concluded that "Lebanon, during this period, could witness … a new series of assassinations and explosions carried out by an organized network that had been mentioned in the last report by U.N. investigator Serge Brammertz."Picture: Some of the assassinated Lebanese leaders . They are from top right counterclockwise
Former PM Rafik Hariri, former president Rene Mouawad, former minister Dany Chamoun , former president Bashir Gemayel, former leader Kamal Jumblatt, former minister Bassil Fleihan, former An Nahar columnist Samir Kassir, former communist party leader George Hawi, former An Nahar managing Director and MP Gibran Tueini and former Industry minister and MP Pierre Gemayel.Syria was blamed for all the assassinations but it denies any involvement .Sources: Naharnet

Hogasapian: 'There is no US/ Syria deal at Lebanon's expense
Friday, 21 December, 2007 @ 3:06 AM
Beirut - MP Jean Hogasapian, Minister of State for Administrative Development explained that the visit of American Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs David Welch to Beirut is to confirm that there is no American-Syrian deal at Lebanon’s expense. Hogasapian added that the purpose of Welch’s visit is to tell the ruling majority “ go ahead and elect a president on the basis of a majority of half plus one and we will support you .”President Bush confirmed this green signal during his press conference on Thursday when he said “ we welcome and support the French effort on finding a compromise candidate as the next president of Lebanon but if this effort fails the Lebanese majority should go ahead and elect a president on the basis of a majority of half plus one and we and the whole world will recognize the new president”
Regarding the refusal of Welch to visit General Michel Aoun Hogasapian said : This is the decision of the US administration.
Free Patriotic Movement leader Gen. Michel Aoun, a member of the Hezbollah-led opposition and a negotiator for the opposition, slammed U.S. policies in Lebanon and Welch's refusal to meet with him.
"U.S. policies represent a danger for Lebanon. Welch's visit is incomplete and will not lead to a solution," he added
During his last surprise visits , Welch met all the key Lebanese leaders except General Michel Aoun. Aoun’s alliance with the Iranian and Syrian backed Hezbollah group has irritated the Lebanese majority alliance which is backed by the US. US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman said “ Aoun sounds more and more like Butheina Shaaban” , Syria's Expatriates Minister and a regular critic of the US.
Hogasapian said the preconditions that Aoun, on behalf of the Hezbollah led opposition is trying to force on the majority prior to the election of a president are wrong . “If the opposition is sincere about negotiations , first it must remove all its tents from downtown Beirut and reopen the parliament for the election of the President, after this is done , we will be willing to sit down and negotiate all the issues .
The downtown of Beirut has been occupied for over a year by the Iranian and Syrian backed Hezbollah-led opposition to bring down the government of prime minister Fouad Siniora.. Tents have been erected everywhere to prevent the operation of the businesses in the area. Over 200 businesses have closed down and declared bankruptcy and tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs as a result of this occupation.

Who is Threatening the "Opportunity" of General Suleiman?
Elias Harfoush
Al-Hayat - 20/12/07//
General Michel Suleiman, the consensus candidate for the Lebanese presidency, can be envied for his patience and ability to tolerate the continuing political bickering that has so far derailed the opportunity for his move from the Army commander's headquarters in Yarze for the Presidential Palace in Baabda. This is despite the fact that more than three weeks have passed since his name was put forward as a serious candidate for the top position in the state.
Despite the contacts that the Army commander has undertaken recently, and particularly after the parliamentary majority's announcement of its support for his candidacy, contacts that have covered all sides, with the goal of answering questions and relaying reassurances - despite this, we can say that Suleiman has been keen to remain outside the political debate over the need to amend the Constitution and the first government of his presidency. If not for the statement issued by the Orientation Directorate of the Army the day before yesterday, in which it said its stance vis-à-vis all sides would "remain based on fixed national policies and not stances" based on current circumstances, confirming that the military would remain outside the political debate - if not for this statement, the commander of the Army's position would have remained vague regarding the ongoing debate, which is directly connected to him and the role that he is assumed to play, if he becomes president, as the symbol of the state and the protector of its Constitution.
It would be difficult to discuss in detail the estimations and conclusions about the group or groups that the Army leadership was referring to in the statement, especially regarding the "constitutional fatwas, discussions, conditions and counter-conditions" that have accompanied the presidential selection. It might be easier for the Army leadership to say that it means everybody. However, there is one party that has prevented, up to now, the convening of the Parliament to vote on a constitutional amendment, and afterward permit the move to the election phase. This group is doing so on the pretext of rejecting the idea of seeing an "illegitimate" government carry out this amendment. Since the Army commander had already, at the end of the last presidential mandate (of Emile Lahoud), declared his full adherence to decisions issued by the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, his stance should have settled the debate over the power of this government, in his point of view, to issue a draft law to amend the Constitution, despite the objections of the opposition and the (opposition) speaker of Parliament to the legitimacy of the existing government.
As for the "open specifications booklet" regarding the prime minister and membership of the new Cabinet, prior to the election of a president, in what the opposition calls a "inter-related basket" for a solution, the least we can say is that it undermines the confidence that the "consensus" president should obtain from all sides. In addition, this condition strikes at one of the provisions of the Taif Accord and the heart of the Constitution, regarding the prerogatives of the president of the Republic in conducting binding parliamentary consultations. Based on these consultations, the prime minister of the first government of the new presidency will be selected. Then, the decrees to form the Cabinet are issued in agreement and consultation with the president of the Republic. Thus, the opposition, which is raising hell every day when an item has to do with a paragraph from the Introduction to the Constitution, even though its leaderships took the initiative to violate them by withdrawing their ministers from the government - the opposition is now putting forward the condition of agreeing to the election of a new president, in a heavy-duty violation of the Constitution. This directly challenges the prerogatives of the president, even before he is allowed to take up his duties.
We are not asking General Suleiman to talk about things as they are. His current position and security role that the Army currently plays on the ground allow him to do such a thing. However, it is difficult for the person who has aided the resistance, giving it the defensive, field and intelligence support that it required in its operations in the south during the battles for liberation, as attested to by the leaders of the resistance - it is difficult for this person to find himself today confronting the conditions of a political group whose basic support is provided by this resistance, and which might seriously do away with his opportunity to become president… and the opportunity to save the nation along with him

Sarkozy, Arabs and Lebanon
Randa Takieddine
Al-Hayat - 20/12/07//
President Nicholas Sarkozy's recent visit to Algeria, the article published by an Algerian minister prior to the visit about the Zionist inclinations of the French president and his bias to Israel, the lukewarm reception of the French president by the Algerian street which contrasts sharply with the reception of his predecessor Jacques Chiraque - all these issues made Sarkozy realize the need to correct his image in the Arab world. In this context, Sarkozy headed an international conference to fund the Palestinian state where he delivered a balanced speech on the Palestinian cause and people to the point that League of Arab States Secretary General Amro Moussa commented that the content of the speech denies the allegations made about Sarkozy's bias to Israel. Sarkozy also made it clear to the Israelis that it was time to end the occupation and settling, and to seek a real peace with the Palestinian people which would allow the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Sarkozy has realized that France's interests with the Arabs and the Middle East are fundamental, and hence he took steps toward the Arab world, received a number of Arab reporters at the Elysées Palace to deliver his message to the Arab world in which he denied the reported allegations. He is indeed "a friend" of Israel, but he is not biased, and he does not believe that Israel's security lies in building a security wall, but rather, in building a peace agreement with the Palestinians and establishing a viable Palestinian state. This is why he was active at the international conference to finance the Palestinian state which yielded over seven billion dollars for the Palestinians over the next three years.
When Sarkozy talks about his Israeli friends and whether he is asking them to change their treatment to the Palestinian people, he answers with exclamation: "Why don't say my Arab friends. I have major friendships in the Arab world from King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, the Jordanian monarch, to the leaders of the Arab Maghreb and others."
Yet when Sarkozy talks about Lebanon, the observer feels that he is uncertain as a result of the difficulties that he faces in dealing with the Syrian president and his allies on the Lebanese ground. He has not lost hope that his Syrian partner in the dialogue will deliver his promise on Saturday and prove wrong those who have spoken about Syria's continuous recanting on its promises. Many an Arab or European official or others have warned Sarkozy about the Syrian regimes poor record with honoring promises. Sarkozy still took the risk and went against the odds by calling President Assad three times only to see his patience tested to the limit.
Moreover, the observer senses bitterness in Sarkozy's words on the Lebanese front where he was bluffed and the French initiative impeded. He did not say so openly, but when he is asked to speak frankly, he sarcastically adds "frankness especially in Lebanon"…as he has suffered the painful traps of treacherous Lebanese politics and its regional implications.
His initiative in Lebanon was obstructed after he had called the Syrian president and sent him his emissaries, the secretary general of the presidency Claude Geaunt and his diplomatic advisor, Jean David Levitte and his aide Boris Boillon. The French presidential team feels that Lebanon has become a trap for the French diplomacy, a trap set up by the Syrian regime....Sarkozy, honest in his attempts to resolve the Lebanese dilemma tried to be balanced in his policy toward Lebanon to assure the success of his initiative. But obstruction happened, and the general impression among French diplomats is that this was all the result of a complicated regional situation: Syria's obsession with the international tribunal and regaining its foothold in Lebanon; Iran's use of the Lebanese card to negotiate the international community over its nuclear file; Israel's interest in the return of Syria's influence in Lebanon as a guarantee to keep Hezbollah in check. It is apparent that the Lebanese majority is not responsible for the obstruction although some diplomats in France are not willing to absolve it of such responsibility. However, the 14 March Movement has offered much, especially with its many martyrs.
The Lebanese political scene is indeed complicated. Still, when receiving the Arab press, the French president stated, "I always look at the opportunities before giving to fate. I never surrender to fate!

Press Conference by the President
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
10:01 A.M. EST
Yes, ma'am.
Q Mr. President, on the Middle East, will your trip to the Middle East -- I know you're not going to Lebanon -- will it help to stabilize Lebanon? As you know, President Sarkozy said that he spoke to President Assad, and he said his patience is running out --
Q Was this coordinated
Q Was this coordinated with you? And are you willing to speak to President Assad to end the crisis in Lebanon?
THE PRESIDENT: No, it wasn't coordinated with me, and my patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago. And the reason why is, is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country to Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon. And so, if he's listening, he doesn't need a phone call. He knows exactly what my position is.
We are -- our view on Lebanon -- first of all, it's very important that Lebanon -- Lebanon's democracy succeed. Secondly, as you know, we did work with the French on 1559 to get Syria out of Lebanon, and Syria needs to stay out of Lebanon. Syria needs to let the process in Lebanon work. And if they can't come to an agreement -- I appreciate the sides trying to work on a common ground for a president, but if they can't come for agreement, then the world ought to say this: that the March 14th Coalition can run their candidate and their parliament; majority plus one ought to determine who the president is. And when that happens, the world ought to embrace the president.
I'm looking forward to going to the Middle East. I've got a couple of objectives. One is to advance the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Secondly is to continue to work with our Arab friends on reconciliation with Israel. And finally, is to assure people in the Middle East that we understand -- or we'll show a strong commitment to the security of the region, and a commitment to the security of our friends.
And it's going to be a great trip. I hope you're going with me.
Q I am, actually.
THE PRESIDENT: Good. (Laughter.) So, therefore, you use that as an opportunity to ask a follow-up. (Laughter.)

Where Is Bashar al-Assad Heading?
by Eyal Zisser
Middle East Quarterly-Winter 2008

On May 27, 2007, Syrians elected Bashar al-Assad to a second 7-year term as president in a referendum in which, according to results published two days later by the Ministry of Interior, Assad received the support of 97.62 percent of the voters, a slight improvement upon the 97.24 percent support he received in the first referendum.[1] Such results, though, have little significance. Syrian referendums are a government-orchestrated show and have nothing in common with normal democratic procedure. Nevertheless, the referendum is a reminder that Assad has survived seven years in power. His regime appears more stable than ever, no mean feat given that Bashar's rule has coincided with perhaps the most difficult years the Baath regime has known in the past four decades.
Secure in Power
Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israel government activities in Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, once said that he would not give Bashar more than half a year in power,[2] not an uncommon sentiment at the time.[3] That Assad survives moots the debate about his viability. In contrast to U.S. experts' predictions,[4] Bashar demonstrated that he was not a puppet in the hands of old guard figures such as Vice President ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas. Today, none of the old guard remains in power, and only former Foreign Minister and current Vice President Faruq al-Shar‘a remains on stage. Most retired on pension, except for ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who defected to Paris from where he attacks the Syrian regime to little effect.[5] The senior military officer corps are, almost to a man, Bashar's appointees although, in most cases, the Syrian media does not report on such appointments: Hasan al-Turkmani, minister of defense; ‘Ali Habib, chief of staff;[6] ‘Ali Mamluk, head of the General Security Directorate;[7] and Muhammad Manasra, head of the Political Security Directorate;[8] for example. Within the military, Bashar has replicated the patron-client relationship wielded so effectively by his father. Despite repeated rumors about tension within the Assad family,[9] there is no evidence that any rival—most notably Asaf Shawkat, Bashar's brother-in-law and the head of the Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya (military security department), or Bashar's younger brother Mahir, an officer in a Republican Guards division—has sufficient power to challenge his rule. The family is maintaining its governmental solidarity. Here, Bashar's low-key personality may help. There is no question he wields power, but he restrains any forceful or violent traits that might arouse active opposition within family or ruling circles.

Also aiding Bashar's staying power is the bureaucracy. In contrast to the 1950s and 1960s when military coups plagued Damascus, the Syrian political system is now tangled and complex. Given the proliferation of bureaucratic institutions and separate military forces, any attempt to enlist broad opposition is almost a mission impossible requiring coordination between the commanders of dozens of military and security units.

Syria-watchers from across the philosophical and political spectrum today acknowledge that Bashar is an effective ruler who monopolizes decision-making in Damascus.[10] His success dashed White House hopes that it could leverage U.S pressure—mainly blunt and harsh rhetoric together with limited sanctions—to destabilize Bashar's regime or force him to change policies.[11]

Not all credit should go to Bashar, though. As with his father, staying in power may have less to do with his abilities than with the character of his rivals. Bashar benefits from the absence of any international, regional, or internal power prepared to oppose him. Also, Syrians believe that Bashar's fall might mean the rise of radical Islamist forces or lead to the chaos and insecurity that has plagued post-Saddam Iraq.

A Pyrrhic Republic?
Just as in the time of his father, the price of Bashar's political success continues to be paid by the Syrian state and its citizens. While Syria is a model of political stability, it remains weakened and backward, frozen in economic and social development. Syria's inertness is extracting a heavier toll on its citizens than ever before. They are falling far behind the modern world in both technology and living standards. According to the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index, Syria is 107th out of 177 countries surveyed;[12] The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation's 2007 Index of Economic Freedom rate Syria 145 out of 157 countries surveyed in the same neighborhood as authoritarian states such as Turkmenistan (152), Libya (155), and North Korea (157).[13] The World Economic Forum's annual report on global competitiveness for 2006-07 ranks Syria 12 out of 13 Arab countries—higher only than Mauritania.[14]

Domestically, Bashar's efforts to liberalize Syrian political life have failed. The so-called "Damascus Spring," during which the new president allowed political and cultural forums to function, including those critical of the regime, lasted only until February 2001 when the regime stepped in to crush any dissidence and arrest many participants. On May 15, 2006, state security arrested thirteen dissidents who signed the Damascus declaration calling for greater democratic reform.[15]

The Syrian economy is entering a crisis stage made worse by the depletion of the country's oil reserves.[16] Bashar's efforts to abandon Syria's socialist legacy and promote a free economy have had little success. The Syrian economy remains heavily regulated; most of Bashar's economic initiatives have failed. For example, few private banks have opened and those that have see financial activity limited. Proposals to open a stock market remain unrealized. Indeed, without a breakthrough in relations with the West, no progress in this area can be expected.[17] And now, the regime has to deal with Islamic radicalism, long dormant in Syrian political life. A repeat of Islamist terror such as that directed toward the regime in the early 1980s may not be far off.

Syria's international relations remain shaky. After assuming power, Bashar faced crises on multiple fronts. The Palestinian uprising in October 2000, the more assertive U.S. policy after 9-11, and the occupation of Iraq each damaged Syrian relations with the West.

Bashar also pays a price internationally for his own mistakes. His regime's apparent role in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri[18] led to the loss of Lebanon and may ultimately lead to the establishment of an international tribunal.[19] Assad's subsequent inflexibility soured his ties not only with Washington but also with Paris, Riyadh, and Cairo. Perhaps Bashar was too willing to take chances, or perhaps he acted impulsively. Either way, he destroyed the balance of axes that his father had established: the Syrian-European axis to counterbalance the Syria-U.S. axis, both of which Hafez al-Assad counterbalanced with his alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Such pariah status may, ironically, strengthen Bashar at home. On the Syrian street, his policies enjoy popularity. If the Hariri assassination and withdrawal from Lebanon were Bashar's nadir, then Israel's decision in August 14, 2006, to end the war in Lebanon without achieving its goals represented a moment of recovery and advancement, at least from Damascus' perspective.[20] With Israel failed in Lebanon, the U.S. military embroiled in Iraq, and Washington's rhetoric exposed as empty, Bashar looks like a gambler who bet on the right horse.

Strings Attached
If Bashar's short-term gamble paid off, he may face a far higher price in the future for his decisions. His outreach to Iran risks transforming Damascus from Tehran's ally into its protectorate. While Bashar derives short-term benefit from the Syrian-Iranian alliance, such profits are liable to turn into losses should he continue to make his regime and Syrian national security dependent upon the Iranian leadership.

Bashar's turn to Iran is evident in his regime's graphic art. When he first came to power, Bashar derived legitimacy from his father's legacy. Posters appeared all over Syria depicting a large image of Hafez al-Assad beside smaller images of Bashar and his deceased brother Basil. By 2001, the posters changed. Bashar was the central figure with his deceased family members relegated to the background. Following the summer 2006 war, however, new posters appeared in Lebanon depicting Bashar's image in the shadow of those of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah general secretary Hasan Nasrallah.[21]

The 2006 war in Lebanon demonstrated the close cooperation between Damascus, Tehran, and Hezbollah.[22] Such cooperation, amounting to a Syrian-Iranian alliance, dates to the early 1980s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini consolidated power in Iran. Collaboration between Tehran and Damascus has grown stronger and more intimate with extensive intelligence and military cooperation. While most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, that the Assad family is ‘Alawi, an offshoot of Shi‘ism, helps bridge the religious divide, at least among the leadership of both countries.

But Syrians warn about the dangers of too much dependence upon the Islamic Republic. Often, these voices manifest themselves with calls for dialog with the West. Some regime spokesmen, led by Foreign Minister Walid Moallem,[23] Imad Mustafa,[24] Syria's ambassador in Washington, and Sami al-Khiyyami, its ambassador in London, declare repeatedly that Syria wants to improve its relations with the United States and, perhaps, even achieve peace with Israel.[25] Their ultimate aim, Syrian representatives explained in private,[26] was to improve Syria's economic situation and break free of the Iranian embrace. In exchange, they said, Damascus wanted Washington to reduce pressure on the regime, treat it as an equal partner, restore the Golan Heights to Syrian control, and perhaps, acquiesce to Syrian domination over Lebanon.[27]

It is difficult to know to what extent these declarations reflect Assad's own views. The Syrian leader also sent contradictory messages, including threatening to exercise a policy of resistance (muqawama) just as Hezbollah did in Lebanon and Hamas did in Gaza and the West Bank. He has also suggested that if his demands remain unmet, Syria might play a negative role in the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon.[28] In Lebanon, at least, the Syrian regime has shown their threats to be no bluff. The list of murdered Lebanese politicians, already long, is growing.[29] Bashar also appears to be enacting his April 24, 2007 threat to U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon that Syria would ignite the whole region if the U.N. established an international tribunal to try senior Syrian officials.[30] Moscow's cynical policy in the region and its provision of advanced weaponry[31] also enable Bashar to strengthen his defiance, as does his significant chemical and biological weapons arsenal.[32]

Where is Bashar Headed?
It is difficult to know where Bashar is headed. He is far more likely to model his behavior after Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser than Anwar Sadat. In the 1950s, Nasser refused to join either the East or West blocs. Rather, he sought to maneuver between the two until the Eisenhower administration pushed him into the arms of the Soviet Union with Washington's demands of absolute commitment to the U.S. line.[33]

Today, Bashar al-Assad is sending a similar message to the George W. Bush administration, namely, that Syria is not prepared to join a U.S. axis and that Washington should not demand it do so. Such a policy might have been possible during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, but it became unacceptable to the White House after 9-11.

Washington should not perceive Bashar al-Assad as totally inflexible, though. His father could change policies when he deemed it necessary, reassessing relations with Washington following the Soviet Union's collapse and also shifting from a commitment to unending war with Israel to preparedness for peace negotiations. Bashar may be likewise capable of changing policies. Bashar in 2007 is not necessarily the same ruler as Bashar in 2000. His first seven years may have led Bashar to consider adopting his father's policy to seek dialog with both Washington and Jerusalem. However, it is possible that he has reached the opposite conclusion.

Either way, Bashar is offering Washington a deal that would require the United States to abandon Iraq, leave Lebanon open to Syrian domination, and agree to a return of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a return to the friendly dialog the Syrian regime held during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.[34] In effect, he is proposing to Washington an honorable capitulation. Such an agreement would enable Bashar to immunize Syrian society from the change he fears.

A moment of truth for Bashar came on September 6, 2007, when Israeli aircraft carried out an operational mission in northern Syria.[35] American media reports suggest the strike occurred to disrupt Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation.[36] Israeli officials refrained from comment in order not to corner Syria or escalate the situation further. The Syrians did not respond militarily to the attack suggesting that, at least at present, Damascus is not interested in or ready for war.

Perhaps Bashar does not feel himself as strong as he did after the 2006 war in Lebanon, or perhaps he realizes the potential cost of war. If this is the case, then Jerusalem successfully called Bashar's bluff. Assad may believe, though, that he has the advantage of time. Since late 2006, the Bush administration has abandoned its efforts to pressure Syria into compliance with U.S. demands to remove itself from the "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iran; to stop supporting terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine; and to play a positive role in Iraq and Lebanon.[37] But the U.S. quagmire in Iraq has eroded U.S. leverage. No Middle East ruler now believes further U.S. military intervention possible. Bashar may even deepen his alliance with Tehran and Pyongyang. Perhaps if Washington cannot beat Damascus, it will join with it as some Bush administration critics have suggested.[38] This, incidentally, was what the United States did with regard to Nasser and Hafez al-Assad, and it is very possible that Washington will act similarly in the not-so-distant future towards Hafez's son, Bashar.

Eyal Zisser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power (London: I.B. Taurus, 2006).

[1] Tishrin (Damascus), June 12, 2000, May 30, 2007.
[2] Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), June 23, 2000.
[3] Al-Hayat (London), June 12, 2000.
[4] See Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria, Bashar's Trial by Fire (Washington: Brookings Institute Press, 2005), pp. 57-98; David W. Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus, Basher al-Asad and Modern Syria (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 8-19, 229-43.
[5] Al-Arabiyya television, Dec. 31, 2005, Jan. 1, 2006.
[6] Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, Damascus), May 8, Aug. 1, 2004.
[7] An-Nahar (Beirut), June 14, 2006.
[8] Al-Hayat, Oct. 14, 2006.
[9] The New York Times, Oct. 30, Nov. 3, 2005; Akhbar al-Sharq website (London), Jan. 20, 2006; Al-Watan al-Arabi (Paris), Oct. 24, 2006.
[10] Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus, pp. 234-43; Barry Rubin, The Truth about Syria (New York: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2007), pp. 199-263.
[11] For more, see Robert G. Rabil, Syria, the United States, and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006), pp. 187-208; Financial Times, Oct. 9, 2005; The Daily Telegraph (London), Jan. 11, 2006; Associated Press, May 25, 2006; statements by Donald Rumsfeld, Agence France-Presse, June 24, 2006, and Condoleezza Rice, Agence France-Presse, June 23, 2006.
[12] "2006 HDI Ranking," Human Development Report 2006: Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (New York: United Nations Development Program [UNDP], 2006), p. 285.
[13] "Ranking: Countries," 2007 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2007), pp. 355-6.
[14] A Global Competitiveness Report, 2006-2007 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, Sept. 26, 2006).
[15] As-Safir (Beirut), May 17, 2006; Ar-Ra'y al-‘Amm (Kuwait), Apr. 26, 2007.
[16] Asharq al-Awsat (London) Apr. 17, 2007; As-Safir, Aug. 28, 2007.
[17] Nimrod Raphaeli, "Syria's Fragile Economy," Middle East Review of International Affairs, June 2007.
[18] Detlev Mehlis, "Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005)," United Nations, New York, Oct. 21, 2005.
[19] "The Situation in the Middle East," U.N. Security Council Resolution 1757.
[20] Bashar al-Assad, speech, SANA, Aug. 15, 2006; Syria Today (Damascus), July 3, 2007; Tishrin, July 9, 2007.
[21] Author interview with European diplomat, Tel Aviv, June 12, 2007; Carsten Wieland, Syria at Bay, Secularism, Islamism and ‘Pax Americana' (London: Hurst, 2006), pp. 127-9.
[22] See Robert G. Rabil, "Has Hezbollah's Rise Come at Syria's Expense?," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2007, pp. 43-51.
[23] Al-Hayat, June 21, 2006.
[24] Newsweek, Apr. 24, 2007.
[25] Faruq al-Shar', Syrian vice-president, The Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 8, 2007; Al-Watan (Kuwait), June 25, 2006.
[26] Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), June 20, 2007; Reuters, July 12, 2007.
[27] Author interview with two former U.S. diplomats, Tel Aviv, Apr. 13, Aug. 23, 2007.
[28] Author interview with former U.S. diplomat, Tel Aviv, Aug. 23, 2007.
[29] For more, see Nicholas Blanford, Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006); Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), Nov. 23, 2006; An-Nahar, June 23, 2007.
[30] Ha'aretz, Apr. 25, 2007.
[31] Lee Kass, "Syria after Lebanon: The Growing Syrian Missile Threat," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 25-34.
[32] Andrew Semmel, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2007.
[33] David W. Lesch, Syria and the United States: Eisenhower's Cold War in the Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984), pp. 138-89; Bonnie F. Saunders, The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case, 1953-1960 (London: Praeger, 1996), pp. 21-54.
[34] Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 137-63, 509-90.
[35] Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Sept. 8, 2007.
[36] CNN, Sept. 10, 2007; The New York Times, Sept. 11, 2007; The Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2007.
[37] David Schenker, "Losing Traction against Syria," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch no. 1290, Sept. 21, 2007; Fred Kaplan, "Let's Make a Deal," Slate Magazine, Sept. 16, 2007.
[38] Leverett, Inheriting Syria, pp. 147-66; The Iraq Study Group Report, The James Baker and Lee Hamilton Commission (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2006).