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Update No: 028 - (28/02/06)

Syria and the Cartoons
Syria was the unusual backdrop of one of the strongest public condemnations of the Muhammad cartoons published in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper in the Middle East. Indeed, the sight of an Islamic protest in Syria, where thousands of Islamists were killed in the 1982 Moslem Brotherhood insurrection in Homa, was somewhat unusual leading many Western leaders, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to imply that Damascus itself instigated the riots. After an initial peaceful demonstration, protesters became rioters, who damaged the, empty, building housing the Danish and Norwegian embassy in Damascus throwing Molotov cocktails, setting it on fire. Syria on Friday disputed Secretary Rice's accusations that it had incited mob violence over the Prophet Mohammad cartoons, saying it did its best to protect the embassies during the protests and that it would pay for the damage done last February 4. In order to maintain the negative theme of US - Syrian relations since the start of the war on Iraq in March 2003, Condoleezza Rice also implied that Syria worked in concert with Iran to incite the mob. The fact that the Danish embassy in Beirut was also attacked, also gave the US head diplomat further evidence of Syrian interference in Lebanon. Danish senior diplomats left Damascus, after the riots but returned on February 26th to reopen the embassy. 
Whereas, the riots against the now infamous cartoons in most of the world generated mostly incomprehension in Washington, the ones in Damascus, which did not produce any victims, were promptly used as another example of Syrian defiance of the international community. The 'riots' have now become part of Washington's diplomatic code vis-à-vis Syria which holds that Syria provides refuge to militant groups such as Hamas, that Syria also fully supports Hizbullah in Lebanon and that it maintains overly friendly relations with Iran, which is now seen as defying the world by pursuing a nuclear energy program. Of course, Syria is still under pressure for allegedly mandating the murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, as well as fostering the Iraqi insurgents and, in so doing, it is also accused of fuelling anti-Western sentiments throughout the Arab world - as exemplified through the riots. However, as noted in previous reports, the role of religion in Syrian society is growing, and the government must be very careful not to recreate the conditions that led to the bloodily suppressed Homa insurrection of 1982. International isolation is inevitably also driving Syria toward regional power centres such as Iran. 
However, even if it is highly unlikely that the Danish cartoon demonstrations started spontaneously - surely it was in accordance with the authorities, it is only the speculation of current detractors such as the US state department that that holds Syria responsible for the violence that ensued. The Syrian response was in some way commendable, as the soldiers and police officers did not shoot to kill the rioters. Doing so and killing fanatics in their moment of 'defending the honour of the faith' would surely have turned them into martyrs creating further problems. The Syrian reaction actually managed to diffuse the situation leaving only repairable physical damage. Indeed, the Danish ambassador has already returned to Damascus. The riots in Damascus and the burst of anti-western feelings for which they served as an outlet also came a week after the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections, which international observers praised for their transparency and which the West - the US leading the pack - appeared to be unwilling to honour, after all the sanctimonious 'lessons' about democracy. It is not surprising then that the cartoon riots erupted just a week after and just after the US announced it would freeze funds to the Palestinian National Authority (ANP). Doubtless, the European decision to unlock its own funds after Israel decided to freeze the ANP's custom duties revenues and the supply of gas and fuel to the Gaza and the West Bank was prompted by a desire to avoid episodes of protest for which the riots represent a minor example of what could happen. Moreover, there is a growing tendency in Syria for the government to co-opt the return of religion. It is too risky to espouse purely secular values. The war in Iraq has attracted fanatical elements, which then return to their home countries radicalised and equipped with fighting experience. The phenomenon is not unlike what occurred in Afghanistan in the 1980's, when Arab fighters who joined the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviets returned to their homes with a radical view of religion and a sense of purpose and perceived invincibility. The example of Algeria, which tried to resist the Islamic tide by force in 1992 leading to an almost decade long civil war killing 150,000 people (according to some estimates) has not been lost on many Arab governments. 
Syria has promoted a state version of Islam - a notion also pursued in Egypt to counter the Muslim brotherhood in the last decades - after the attack on Homa in 1982. The state funded the building of mosques and religious schools or madrasas. Local observers say that while government officials used to start their speeches with secular phrases, now they start with 'Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim'," the Arabic for, "In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful". More recently and directly, however, Syria has started to face a very practical problem. If Syria encouraged the revolt in Iraq, the increasing US pressure for Syria to patrol its borders to prevent flows of potential 'insurgents' in Iraq, as well as the ever large US presence on the other side, ensuring its own control of such inflows is keeping many would be Islamic fighters in Syria. Syrian analyst Marwan Qabalan suggests, in fact, that the Syrian government actually "thought they were getting rid of the extremist elements in Syrian society by sending them to die in Iraq… [however] these people, who have been trained in Iraq, are now coming back to Syria and could use their tactics against a new enemy - possibly the state". The Syrian government, in which there is one Islamist MP, is also facing increased pressure from milder political forces to allow a greater role for Islamist parties, something to which the Hamas electoral victory and increasing importance in the Palestinian territories has no doubt contributed. 
Meanwhile, on the Hariri investigation front, the new head of the UN inquiry into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister made his first visit to Syria February 24. He met the new foreign Minister Walid Muaallem, the former Syrian ambassador to Washington. Serge Brammertz's visit lasted a few hours, during which he met unspecified officials with whom he presumably tried to arrange an interview with president Bashar Asad, who has been less than enthusiastic about participating. According to the inquiry commission, Brammertz' four-hour visit aimed to "sound out the Syrian authorities on cooperation with the commission and to discuss the framework for interrogating Syrian suspects and witnesses." To add pressure perhaps, Condoleezza Rice visited Beirut on February 24 and made it a point to snub officials close to Syria while proffering now expected inflammatory comments in line with Washington's policy of portraying Syria as a 'rogue state'. Rice finished a four-nation tour of the Middle East on Friday that also took her to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Rice's reason for the unscheduled Levantine stop was to convey "US support for the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Lebanese people as they work to have a fully sovereign, democratic Lebanon". 
However, Rice visited Lebanon at a time when there is overt campaign by the anti-Syrian majority in parliament to oust President Emile Lahoud, a staunch ally of Syria. Rice refused to meet Lahoud and hinted that the US would welcome Lahoud's departure. Rice also made the obligatory remark that Syria must cooperate fully with the UN investigation into last year's killing of former premier Rafiq Hariri. The Rice visit must have had an effect as Lahoud's opponents boycotted Cabinet meeting just hours after Rice left for Abu Dhabi, perhaps further encouraged to oust to the president according to Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. Rice also met powerful Christian elements such as the Maronite spiritual leader, Nasrallah Sfeir, as well as Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, one of Lahoud's main opponents. She also held a joint session with Saad Hariri - who visited Washington in January - son of the slain former prime minister, and Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who has become another vocal critic of Lahoud and Syria. Adding more controversy to the already tense situation was the fact that the main reason for Rice's diplomatic tour of the Middle east was to garner support from Arab allies of the Gulf Cooperation Council to isolate Hamas, and to block the Iranian nuclear program. Both Hamas and Iran are closely associated with Damascus. 

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