Walid Moallem, fear, and the prisoners


Walid Moallem came to Beirut on Monday, proving that absence doesn’t necessarily increase a sense of longing. In his short time in town the Syrian foreign minister reminded us of the kind of regime he works for, something forgotten in the bout of amnesia that overcame the world media last week when Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Paris.

During his visit, Moallem was asked about the fate of Lebanese still detained in Syrian prisons, and what he had to say about the matter. The foreign minister replied: “He who has waited for 30 years during [Lebanon’s] Civil War is capable of being patient for a few weeks [more].”

Moallem could have said any of a dozen other things. He could have done what bureaucrats usually do and said nothing at all. He could have found a hypocritical formulation to suggest that he felt sympathy for the families of the prisoners, scoring easy points on behalf of Syria’s dictator. Instead he made a callous statement, more insulting for being wrapped in a falsehood since Lebanon’s Civil War ended in 1990 and many of those sent to Syria were arrested during the postwar years of absolute Syrian rule.

Moallem’s reaction invites a question more appropriate to psychology than politics. What is it about Syrian civilian officials that frequently makes them so vicious in what they say about Lebanon? Theirs is the viciousness not of the intelligence officer but of the coward, the sissy, who talks tough because he is petrified of the intelligence officer; who fears that if he doesn’t talk tough, then those with real power in the system might see through that ersatz toughness all the way to the grinding fear that lies underneath, a fatal fear in so pitiless a system as the Baathist one.

Recall what another Syrian official, Faysal Mekdad, said about Gebran Tueni soon after his assassination in December 2005. At the time Mekdad, who is now deputy foreign minister, was Assad’s representative at the United Nations. In a conversation with a fellow Arab diplomat Mekdad was overheard saying, “So now every time that a dog dies in Beirut there will be an international investigation?” He was referring to the fact that the Lebanese government had, the day before, requested that the UN investigation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s murder be expanded to include the dozen or so bomb explosions and assassinations that had taken place afterward – Tueni’s being the latest. In response to the comment, Gebran’s father Ghassan took legal action against Mekdad.

However, is anything surprising here? When Moallem and Mekdad speak, they only ape the man that they serve. And on Lebanon Bashar Assad has been more contemptuous than most. Recall what the president said in a speech on March 5, 2005, when he announced that his army in Lebanon would withdraw toward the Syrian border: “Of course, [two]forces have been a natural part of Lebanese history for over 200 years, [those]that extend their hand to the outside, and nationalist forces. And [the former]have failed several times: in 1958 when Lebanon joined the Baghdad Pact; in 1969 when it attacked the Palestinian resistance; in 1983 when [such forces failed]to breathe life into the May 17 agreement [with Israel]; [such behavior]will fail for as long as nationalist forces are present.”

That “nationalist forces” did not exist 200 years back in Lebanese history was the least difficult aspect of that ill-informed passage to stomach. Rather, it was Assad’s ideological interpretation of Lebanese history that was, his feeding of Lebanon and the Lebanese into a crude Baathist mindset that divided them into patriots and renegades.

Then there was April 24, 2007, when Assad met in Damascus with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to discuss Lebanon. The exchange was later leaked to the French daily Le Monde, which published it in an article evidently never read by Nicolas Sarkozy. Assad told Ban, “In Lebanon, divisions and confessionalism have been deeply anchored for more than 300 years. Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country’s] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.”

In case Ban didn’t get the point, Assad clarified it: “[This instability] will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea … This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon.”

Passage of the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter did not bring on the apocalypse that Assad had promised, which tells us something else about Syria’s regime: When faced with a resolute adversary, it tends to back down. That is why the Lebanese government should try to apply that lesson with regard to those Lebanese still imprisoned in Syria. They number 91 according to the former minister Fouad al-Saad, who years ago headed a committee charged with shedding light on their fate; although yesterday the daily Al-Mustaqbal published the names of 177 Lebanese prisoners still believed to be in Syria.

The first thing the Lebanese government should do is appoint an independent investigator to prepare as accurate a list as possible of the detainees. That list should then be placed on the table whenever Lebanon and Syria discuss anything – bearing in mind that both Christians and Muslims are languishing in Syrian jails, meaning a cross-sectarian consensus on resolving the problem is achievable. That list should also make its way to Paris, Washington, Berlin and Brussels, so that every time a foreign official lands in Damascus, the names should be in his or her briefcase, hopefully alongside the names of the many Syrian political prisoners whose misfortunes have been generally ignored in the West.

Maybe then we will be able to tell Moallem that if fear has provoked his scorn for those who have suffered under the leadership he represents, we at least have nothing to fear anymore. It’s the least that Lebanon’s political class can do after having spent years chatting with Syrian intelligence chiefs at Anjar, only meters away from where their countrymen were being beaten and tortured and readied for a long journey into the Syrian prison network that for many has yet to end.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.


Comments are closed.


Discover more from Middle East Transparent

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading