On Manaf Tlass, Syrian regime and the opposition..

Manaf Tlass` defection has resulted in a big buzz. But it is only few weeks after leaving Syria that the former commander of elite unites in the Republican Guard has finally spoken. “Spoken” with words, as in this interview aired by Al Arabiya, where Manaf states his support for the revolution which will give Syria back to its citizens.

He has also spoken with “images”, as soon as this picture here below went viral over the Internet yesterday. It portrays Manaf`s trip to Mecca for `umra (lesser pilgrimage), something that gives him enough “grades” to be accepted by the Kingdom as the right successor to Assad.

 

On the Manaf Tlass` case I think everybody should read this article by American Syrian scholar Bassam Haddad, an expert of Syria`s “neo-liberal” economy and editor of the precious Jadaliyya review.

My 50 Minutes with Manaf

by Bassam Haddad | published July 25, 2012 – 12:54pm

Tala was a friend of a friend. I met her in the early 2000s. Shortly afterward, she disappeared from the office. It turns out she got married.

Some years later, during one of my regular visits to Syria, I was with a group of friends at one of the bustling new restaurant-bars that dotted Damascus’ old city, around Bab Touma. Some places were more popular than others, frequented by internationals and a particular stratum of Damascene society that included some people who were pro-regime and others who were opposed. By the mid-2000s, one’s opinion of the regime did not matter much, in and of itself. What brought these Damascenes together was their common benefit from President Bashar al-Asad’s “economic reform” policies and the social stratification they had produced. In these circles, criticism of the regime was no longer taboo — so long as it was presented in a pleasant and “reasonable” manner. No names, no mention of sect, nothing “subversive.” Anyway, why would these people want to subvert the status quo?

That night, I was introduced to Tala’s husband, Manaf Tlass, as a “Syria researcher” working on the “Syrian economy.” At the time, Manaf was one of the regime’s top strongmen, working side by side with Mahir al-Asad (the president’s younger brother) as a commander of elite units in the Republican Guard. It was too dark to make out his features. Most of what I saw was the big round flame at the tip of the cigar that seemed surgically attached to his fingers, if not his lips. He asked a few questions. I answered politely. I knew who he was, and thought it was odd that he mingled so freely.

That was it.

On a subsequent trip, at a birthday party in another of those restaurants, I met Manaf again. This time, he asked someone to ask me to come to his table. Usually, that is not a good thing. I obliged, and he took me aside, asking more questions about regional politics and, then, Syria. I found myself discussing post-colonial development with Manaf and his cigar as Stardust’s remix of “Music Sounds Better with You” played in the background. We talked for a few minutes before I excused myself. Later, as he said his goodbyes to his fellow diners, Manaf approached me and asked me to come to his home office in Mazzeh. I was not asked for my cell phone number but was given an office number to confirm the visit.

I was in a tricky position. My research on Syrian political economy examined state-business networks and traced the deepening relationships between state officials and businessmen.

Manaf Tlass was no businessman, having gone the route of his father, Mustafa, the former defense minister who was a close confidante of Hafiz al-Asad for decades. But his brother, Firas, was. Many offspring of the Syrian leadership had gone the entrepreneurial route, and by the late 1980s they had become big businessmen, often with the aid of connections to consummate insiders like Manaf. Firas Tlass is said not to have exploited his connections as much as others, but the fact is that policymakers and policy takers in Syria were increasingly bound together. And there was another model that proved even more efficient at generating profits: The state official himself was a businessman in his capacity as a private citizen, creating what I called “fusion” between the public and private sectors.

For about ten years, I had been trying to study the development of capitalism in Syria, how it sustained authoritarianism and the attendant social machinations. I was not interested in exposing this or that character, as the “fusion” formula is not unique to Syria, and the Syrian regime was in no need of further unmasking. I purposely avoided talking to government and regime figures because the returns from such interviews are usually meager, and there is always the risk of raising suspicions about one’s research. The last systematic fieldwork by a Western scholar on Syria’s political economy had been carried out by Volker Perthes a half-decade earlier, producing the staple bookThe Political Economy of Syria Under Asad (1995). It was not a walk in the park for Volker, and nor was it for me. Though Firas Tlass, the fast-growing tycoon, was quite accessible, I elected not to speak with him, relying instead on an interview Joseph Samaha, one of the best journalists of our time, had conducted for al-Hayat in 1999. But now Firas’ brother, on the other side of the state-business equation, wanted to speak with me. It was not easy to say yes or no.

Manaf was quite candid and seemed more interested in conversation than surveillance. Still, I hesitated for some time before friends advised me not to skip out on the meeting.

At the time, Manaf was a rising star, quite close to the Asad family. Regime strongmen had regained their swagger after several years of “consolidation” that took place after the succession of Bashar to the presidency. It was a day to begin making Syria anew, with a younger and more contemplative, though less seasoned, leadership. The theme was less “reform” than “modernization,” less “change” than “continuity.” There was an atmosphere of cautious openness.

I walked into Manaf’s office and was politely asked to sit. I politely turned down the offer of a cigar. After some back-and-forth about my heritage (my mother is Syrian), Manaf asked me to share with him my frank thoughts about the Syrian regime, without stammering or self-censorship. It was surreal.

I was not unafraid. But I spoke forthrightly because it was the only thing I could do, and, honestly, because Manaf’s bearing was anything but intimidating or reminiscent of the stereotypical interrogator.

Taking care to be respectful, I shared my views on the limits of authoritarianism in time and space, and the limits of Syria’s regional role in the absence of more inclusive power-sharing formulas inside the country. When Manaf asked about corruption, I made sure to repeat, almost verbatim, the words of ‘Arif Dalila, an independent Marxist economics professor at the University of Damascus who was incarcerated in 2001 for his anti-regime views, during the post-“Damascus spring” round of arrests. ‘Arif was one of the most courageous people around — a mentor and, later, a friend. In 1998-1999, under Asad senior, mind you, when mosquitoes shuddered at the thought of landing on a regime member’s nose, he would walk down the aisle of the packed auditorium at the Tuesday Economic Forum. He would take the stage and dismantle the state’s rhetoric regarding the causes of Syria’s economic decline after the mid-1990s. He would say to rooms crawling with informants (and worse), and I quote from my notes:

Corruption is not a moral or ethical problem at heart, and it does not start at the moment when a policeman or border officer asks for a bribe. It is a systemic practice with a social, economic and political material base intended to sustain the entire political formula in this country…. We should not blame the poor officer who cannot make ends meet on his salary, but instead we should demand accountability at the highest level possible in this regime.

Talk about goose bumps. It was scary just to witness those words uttered. The room would fall silent, as though everyone had literally died, but everyone was actually feeling hyper-alive as ‘Arif would yifish al-ghill (redeem) the listeners in the most visceral way. Almost immediately after he spoke, over half of the audience would leave. It was one of the reasons why the Forum’s general secretary, Farouq al-Tammam, would beg ‘Arif to postpone his intervention until the end, knowing that everyone would stay to hear him. ‘Arif was not just a political economist or regime critic. He was a visionary, versed in the intricacies of global politics, and someone who would tear up when discussing the loss of Palestine by Arab regimes, including Syria’s.

Manaf listened without interrupting, and without letting go of his cigar. He then responded for 20 minutes, challenging me mildly on the feasibility of genuine reform in Syria and giving his views on democracy, the United States and regional politics. He was also forthright. His ideas, however, were underdeveloped or, more precisely, developed in a mind accustomed to wielding excessive power.

On reform, he asserted the importance of gradualism, a Hafiz al-Asad mantra, one that suits the reformers’ timetable, not that of the purported beneficiaries. But he was also unabashed in asserting the need for top-down control, which to him transcended questions of right and wrong, or democracy and authoritarianism. The regime had to guide the reform process based on a holistic view, one that takes into account local and regional variables. I interjected that this approach is the norm for regimes like Syria’s because reform is not the goal. He did not correct me, and reasserted the need for control.

Earlier, I had said to him that, even by the Syrian regime’s logic, it was always possible to open up the system more, to take more calculated risks in order to reduce the constant pressure, to utilize better Syria’s resources, human and material, instead of having fewer and fewer Syrians set an entire people’s destiny. He seemed to think I was being idealistic, that “political rule” requires other considerations, then dove into stock ruminations about whether or not Syria was ready for democracy. I was taken aback to hear some of the culturalist arguments that many of us educators have spent years trying to debunk in American (or other) classrooms.

Manaf seemed to be thinking big. He spoke of the United States as an equal, and was interested to identify balances of power of which Syria could take advantage. He oscillated between great wariness of the West and openness to new forms of engagement. After a while, it seemed I had caught him (and his cohort?) at a time when he was simply brainstorming. Certainly, the regime had abandoned any meaningful notion of socialism or even social justice. Manaf was not overly sensitive about such matters. His friends and relatives, the Asads, the Makhloufs and others of his generation were divorced from the struggles that their fathers had gone through in the 1960s. The generational divide was wide, separating two entirely different worldviews, one held by men who saw themselves as underdogs championing the cause of the have-nots against great odds, and one born into a world of plenty, privilege and power.

It is not that Manaf’s bunch was not “nationalistic” or critical of Israel. It is that their views had come at little cost, and so were often more malleable. Yet it seemed that Manaf was embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, as though beginning to feel he was bigger than the regime. His style of jumping from one point to another did not in fact yield a holistic analysis; it was difficult to locate the center of gravity. He spoke as if luxury and plenty had turned policy imperatives into modular choices that could be exchanged in an exegetical manner. It was as if he was talking about a household, not a country.

The privatization of the Syrian state is a reality in the making and remaking. Something had to give as the regime widened the gaps between itself and the majority, between the haves and the have-nots, between the city and the countryside, between manufacturing and trade. When most Syrians are disenfranchised as a few gobble up the available capital, it signals the beginning of the end.

Syrians were ready for democracy when I spoke to Manaf, and long before then. It might have been the kind of democracy that involves no external pressure. Alas, it was not outside intervention that Syrian regime strongmen were most concerned about. They sought merely to forestall a marginal loss of authority and opulence. The luxury of plenty intoxicated them, even blinded them to their long-term self-interest.

Just a few years later, the unsavory actors of the world are amassed around Syria, calling for a “democracy” that will be obedient and not resistant on the regional stage, one that acquiesces in using the victimization of Syrians to perpetuate the victimization of others across the region. It did not have to be this way. And the only party that could have brought about a different kind of change is the party that had near total power. But that party failed to avert Syria’s present catastrophe, and brought so much more than itself crashing down — all because it would not risk one iota of privilege. By sharing just a little power, the regime might have avoided issuing an invitation to those who were waiting to destroy what Syria might have stood for in the region, as they did with Iraq. Now the true friends of Syria are in an impossible position: If we identify with the plight of Syrians under dictatorship, we are branded as imperialists. If we caution against uncritical support of the uprising for the reasons above, we are called regime apologists. We are all wrong, no matter what we say.

Manaf thanked me for the visit, and I left about 50 minutes after entering his office.

On July 24, after leaving Syria some 12 days prior, Manaf Tlass for the first time announced his opposition to the regime that he embodied, as though its transgressions had begun in March 2011. And the external “opposition” benevolently embraced him, as did the Saudis, who admitted Manaf to their kingdom for the ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage). As Louis Armstrong sang, “What a Wonderful World!”

 

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Syria: some little things out of macro-analysis

When opening my Twitter timeline earlier today I ran into a tweet by Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for the joint Arab League-United Nations special envoy, Kofi Annan. Fawzi tweeted the following

#Syria’s Propaganda Cloud: How the West Is Falling for Misinformation http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/22/syria-s-propaganda-cloud-how-the-west-is-falling-for-misinformation.html via @thedailybeast

Usually when people retweet something is because they have found it interesting or worth discussing. In Fawzi`s case, it was unclear why he did that, since he didnt add any personal comment when retweeting the article nor did he engage with the discussion he had generated online when folks where asking: why the hell did he retweet that article?

Usually when famous people or public personalities  retweet stuff on Twitter they do carry an alert under their Twitter name: “RT does not mean endorsement”.

Well, Mr Fawzi does not have this, so the issue stays ambiguous and we`ll never be sure of the reasons behind his retweet.

Anyway, let`s assume Mr Fawzi had found the article`s perspective on Syria somehow interesting and decided to share it with the broader online community.

This is where I have a problem.

First of all, I personally dont trust articles that begin with  the phrase: “Having just returned from Syria a few days ago..”.

This kind of articles contains the unverified and usually very pretentious “truth” that having been recently in a place means knowing that place better. This is even more “true” in the Syrian case, where the government has carefully turned an entry visa in a precious exchange commodity that can be shown when truth is needed.

I don`t know the author of the article and I don`t want to criticize him for the sake of being critical, but I`d love to understand what was in his mind when he wrote “ the government remains in control over most of the country—including the economy—despite the best efforts of propagandists to say otherwise”.

What I can see is exactly the contrary, and not only on a macro-level. There are small indicators in the daily lives of people that signal that the regime is everything but in control of the internal situation, let alone at a business level. The most relevant of these indicators is that businessmen operating in different fields that were very close to the regime are now being touched by an intensive arrest and interrogation campaign.

When members of a prominent family like Joud -loyal to the Syrian regime since the time of Hama in 1982- are being held and interrogated by security services this means that the regime is freaking out. This is just one case among many others reported these days in business circles in Damascus. Nobody seems to be untouchable anymore, not even the old allies, not even those who once secured financial stability to the country and helped it to prevent  from descending into chaos. Arresting and interrogating members of prominent business families seems to signal that Syrian regime is not really in tight control of the situation: or, maybe better, that one part of the regime -the security minded side- is leading the game, regardless of what the (once) reform-minded side wants or aims at.

A security project is driving everything in Syria these days, despite  reformists` claims to be still in control of the game.

Not only the treatment of once untouchable businessmen signals this. Also, the way security forces are dealing with the middle class is not promising and it is scaring out people more and more.

I have a friend who used to live in the Inshaat neighborhood in Homs. This is a middle class area: engineers, doctors, professionals do live there. But Inshaat is close to Baba Amro, a slum made up of informal settlements that became a stronghold of rebels and was brought back to “normalcy” after days and days of military siege by the Syrian army. Inshaat has nothing to do with Baba Amro, at least socio-demographically speaking. And we could think of it as an area where lots of Assad`s supporters could eventually live, i.e. people who have a good life and in search of stability. But these people were becoming maybe too sympathetic with their poor neighbors; or maybe the military required a strategic position from where to launch the attack to Baba Amro; or maybe it suddenly just became too attractive to enter these middle class` houses and occupy them. Whatever the reason was, the result is that, little by little, the Inshaat people were pushed to leave  their houses for lack of security. They left without anything and their houses were taken, together with all their belongings. In my friend`s house they even took the bidet. It is told there are informal souks (markets) where these belongings taken from Inshaat and from other area in Homs are sold.

Video from Inshaat, Homs, posted by @javierespinosa2 on Twitter

This is how the Syrian economy is solid at the moment.

If , just for a while, you think at that middle class once leaving in places like Inshaat, which is now displaced elsewhere in Syria or abroad, yes indeed they have the financial means to do that, but how will they react to what happened to their properties?

The Syrian regime justification is, of course, that displacing people in Homs is nothing when it`s Syria`s fate at stake. But the middle class gets angry when stability lacks and when those who are supposed to provide it fail to meet their promises. And there is not just the Homs middle class. Middle class is everywhere, and we should watch out to what is happening to the Damascus` middle class and where this is heading.Also, there is not only one slum in Syria, but many others rather that Baba Amro, including in the Syrian capital. Theoretically speaking, this means that the same strategy used with Inshaat and Baba Amro can be adopted for other places in the country.

At the end of the day, there are so many stories to be told concerning the Syria situation, but so few get international media`s attention. And these are always macro-analysis, think-thank style overviews that get noticed by international observers, policy makers, international journalists. Whereas the micro-analysis gets buried into Facebook, the goldmine of Syrian daily lives and chats. Yet, too difficult to penetrate for those in search of  relevance, I`m afraid.

Culture in defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria

For those of you who are in Amsterdam or just passing by on June 4th there is a must-follow event happening at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery.

It`s the opening of an art exhibition dedicated to the creative struggle for freedom in Syria, which goes under the title of  “Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria.

I`ve had the honor to join the group of curators who have put together lots of creative works (films, music, visual art, graffiti, cartoons.etc) produced by Syrians since the beginning of the Syrian uprising March 15th 2011. Malu Halasa,author of the amazing art book “Secret life of Syrian lingerie“, called me after I gave a presentation in London about Syrian user-generated creativity. She was very enthusiastic about the idea of putting together as many creative works as possible speaking of the “new Syrian wave” of creativity that has sprout out of the uprising. Thanks to her energy and enthusiasm, together with expertise of Syrian curators Aram Tahhan and Leen Zyiad, we have put together a good amount of songs, visual art works, graffiti works, films, photos. There is a publication coming up  that Malu has curated, where I have written an article about user-generated creativity in the context of the Syrian uprising. I hope I was able to give at least an idea of the amazing anonymous people whose works I see every day blossoming over the Internet.

Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, also a Prince Claus Foundation`s laureate, will open the exhibition on June 4th together with Malu.

We are planning an academic symposium with a series of light evening lectures in the context of the exhibition. It looks like it will be sometimes in October, I`ll post the date as soon as possible. Syrian guests specialized in creative films, advertising, etc will join us for debate sessions on creative resistance in Syria.

Music and Art from Syria revolution

Syrian bear– Yumal

Syrian bear– Simo

Khalil Younes – Qashoush

Al Fann wal Hurrya 

Spray men– Graffiti

Al Qazan as-sury

Khaled Abdelwahed– Bullet: a Syrian short story

Juan Zero – Syrian cartoonist

Jaber al Azmeh– photography

Hamid Suleiman– Ghiath Matar

Blogs

Rajul al-bakhakh (Spray men)

Articles

Bruce WallaceMy people love me

Ziad Majed and Nadia Aissaoui – Quand la peur change de camp 

Yves Gonzales-QuijanoThe Pixelised revolution: art et revolution 

Donatella Della RattaCreative resistance challenges Syria`s regime

Donatella Della RattaIrony, satire, and humor in the battle for Syria

Amelie RivesArt and revolution: The Syrian case 

Syrian revolution and Creativity

I`d like to republish this article by Basma Atassi out today on Al Jazeera English because it exactly describes the creative spirit of the Syrian revolution and the genuine push for change and innovation that the Syrian youth has been bravely putting out in more than 9 months putting their own life at risk.

 

A colourful uprising in Damascus
 
Activists in Syria’s capital are using covert methods to show their opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s continuing rule.
 
Basma Atassi Last Modified: 13 Dec 2011 07:55
New methods of creative civil disobedience are flourishing in Syria’s capital [Calendar of Freedom]

These days, it is not extraordinary in Damascus for flyers calling for freedom to be blown on the breeze, or for garbage bins to bear banners calling for the collapse of the ruling administration.

This is the work of youths in the city in the belief that, with creativity, they could cause the government of President Bashar al-Assad to falter – along with its security apparatus. Apparently inspired by MK Gandhi, scholar Gene Sharpand other progenitors of non-violent civil disobedience, they formed a movement named “The Calendar of Freedom” and planned and executed pioneering forms of civil disobedience.

“We do the regime a big favour when we move in a direction they expect, when we protest in a typical way and we show up from a predictable location”

– Mouhannad, Calendar of Freedom Movement

These Damascus dissidents began their work as mass protests broke out in March, but only recently has the movement become more organised, with membership swelling from the tens to the hundreds.

“The media always asks: ‘Where is Damascus in the uprising?'” Mouhannad, a member of the movement, told Al Jazeera. “This is an unfair question. Just because there are no large-scale street protests in Damascus, that does not mean that the city is dead. Our methods are different from the rest of the cities because this is the capital. It’s tightly controlled by security forces and shabiha [pro-government militia].”

Small protests have taken place in the heart of Damascus, but have failed to take hold – as they have in the suburbs and in other restive cities. Hundreds of plainclothes police roam the capital’s districts, ready to disperse and arrest gathering crowds. Meanwhile, the army has effectively locked down the peripheries to prevent the daily anti-government protests in the suburbs spilling into the centre of town.

Anti-government youth have had to find other ways to express their dissent. To avoid the crackdown, they have attempted to be one step ahead of government’s forces – and to constantly surprise them.

“We do the regime a big favour when we move in a direction they expect, when we protest in a typical way and we show up from a predictable location,” said 26-year-old Mouhannad. “The security forces will be able to catch us easily and still boast [of their] strength, intelligence and brutality. Therefore, the surprise factor is important for us.”

Fountains of ‘blood’

One of the movement’s first schemes was adding red dye to the waters of the city’s seven major fountains, making them flow scarlet, symbolising the blood of the estimated 5,000 people killed by security forces across the country.

One fountain sat directly in front of one of the headquarters of one of the most feared intelligence services.

“Imagine that: With all their perceived might, all their heavy weapons they use to kill protesters, the government forces stood helpless and confused in front of merely coloured water,” said Salma, a 24-year-old activist.

Activists dyed seven fountains red [Calendar of Freedom]

“The main aim of this action was to raise the morale of the freedom seekers, to crush the morale of the government forces and distort the prestige of the security apparatus.”

Another time, activists aimed a strong laser light, bought from a party supplies store, at the presidential palace. They posted a video showing what appears to be a laser lightbeaming from one hill to another, where the palace is located. Activists claimed that armed guards frantically fired into the air, confused about the source or the nature of the laser.

“The message we wanted to deliver here is that neither Bashar nor his forces scare us. We wanted to show him that the Syrian people do not respect him,” Salma said.

The youth of the movement surprised Damascus residents once again when they stuffed cassette players and speakers in black garbage bags and threw them into trash bins in crowded streets and universities. Minutes later, a well-known anti-Assad song would blare from the bin. Its singer, Ibrahim al-Qashoush, was killed and his throat cut – allegedly by security forces – after he chanted the song in a protest in the central city of Hama.

Syrian state television broadcast pictures of the speakers – alongside grenades and ammunition – claiming the materials were seized from “terrorists”.

“This shows you that our simple, peaceful methods are as dangerous for this insecure regime as weapons. This gives us more motivation to carry on,” Mouhannad said.

Small acts of sabotage

Activists have also gone street to street, changing signs by affixing stickers bearing the names of people killed by security forces in the city. They have covered neighbourhoods including Barzeh, Mashrou’ Dummar, al-Midan, Rukn el-Deen, al-Salhiyeh, Daraya, al-Qadam, al-Qaboun and Zamalka.

The sign on a street in Barzeh area, for example, was changed to: “Eid Abdel Kayem Allou Street. Died at the age of 40. Married with four children, the youngest of whom was born 40 days after his death.”

“Creative ideas could only be fought back with ideas, something that this decaying unimaginative regime lack”

– Salma, Calendar of Freedom Movement

The Damascus dissidents’ campaign has extended to other ideas and small acts of sabotage, including glueing the door locks at a government building, releasing “freedom balloons” into the sky, spraying walls with anti-government graffiti, and calling on residents to collectivelyswitch off their lights at a certain hour.

Salma said that the movement’s power lies in its simplicity, encouraging those who are still hesitant to join the ranks of the Syrian uprising.

“Our campaign was particularly effective in universities,” Salma said. “We had called on students to wear blackclothing on certain days as a gesture of support for the Syrian revolution against Assad. The response was amazing. Students loved the fact that they could express dissent for this ruthless regime with the least risk of getting arrested.”

The youths also focused on awareness campaigns. Using home printers, they printed and distributed newslettersdiscussing the uprising. They created educational videos on non-violence and interviewed Erica Chenoweth, a professor and a co-author of a book on non-violent civil disobedience.

To avoid being arrested, the youth group said that they carefully study the security risks of each activity before embarking on it. Many of the members do not even know each other. They communicate and make logistical arrangements anonymously through Facebook.

Salma said the movement was planning more projects that aim at “driving the government crazy”.

“Creative ideas could only be fought back with ideas, something that this decaying unimaginative regime lack,” she concluded. “This is why we know that we will eventually win this battle.”

Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_