by Ghassan Kadi
Over the last few years, and since the “War on Syria” started, we have heard many pro-Syria enthusiasts raving about how wonderful Syria was before the war. Some of them, mainly Westerners who had never been to Syria before the war, were invariably heard making statements about “perfect” Syria, how everyone lived peacefully and in harmony and in a law-abiding manner.
Whilst some of this is true to some extent, and whilst the Syrian culture endorses civilized behaviour and the so-called old-fashioned code of ethics, Syria was nowhere close to being perfect, and when Syrian patriots rose for her defence, they didn’t do so because they believed it was perfect, but rather to preserve its unity, independence, secularism and integrity.
In hindsight, the biggest problems that Syria had were a latent fundamentalist threat, a Kurdish question and corruption.
Everyone wanted to believe that the defeat suffered by the Jihadis at the hands of President Hafez Al Assad back in 1983 was going to be sufficient to muzzle them forever. A few cynics, including myself, felt that this was an optimistic outlook. Others of course vowed for revenge. Sadly, time proved that the cynics were right and the “revenge” was brutal. It is hoped that current President Bashar Al Assad will learn from his father’s experience in a manner that does not allow any such resurgence anytime in the foreseeable future.
And as the Syrian Government is taking steps towards negotiating with several Kurdish groups, and as those Kurdish groups are reciprocating positively, it is hoped that this will provide an opportunity to deal with the Kurdish issue once and for all, given that the subject was taboo before the war and no one wanted to open Pandora’s Box in peacetime. A few days ago, I was interviewed by Sputnik about this very subject, and since then, a few positive developments have eventuated on the ground. https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201808031066917418-syria-kurds-thaw/
This leaves us with corruption.
Early in the war, I read an Arabic article by an Iraqi scholar who is not a personal supporter of President Al Assad, neither was he a supporter of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. After having seen what happened to Saddam and Iraq, the author re-evaluated in his own mind his priorities and realised that he had taken the wrong stand towards his country by being anti-Saddam. The article was titled “Why Do I Defend Syria”. I was very moved by this article and decided to translate it into English. http://intibahwakeup.blogspot.com/2013/10/why-do-i-defend-syria-by-dr-omar-thaher.html With Sadness and realism, I felt his pain because it also articulated my own pain, especially when I read his narrative about how easy it is to smuggle a tank into the country if you give the customs officer(s) the right bribe which probably does not need to exceed a few dollars or hundred at the most.
Presidents Al Assad, father and son, never denied the endemic problem of corruption. The son President has gone to the extent to state recently that there is corruption even in the Presidential Palace. It is a huge, endemic problem and to shove it underneath the carpet and pretend it does not exist is almost tantamount to treason.
Realistically, as the “War on Syria” was taking form, the main attribute that needed to be canvassed was loyalty to the State and its Constitution. Pragmatically therefore, the focus on corruption had to take a backseat with the centre stage given to the war and how to win it. Given the events of today, and the fact that the war is almost over, the battle against corruption must commence, and commence as soon as possible.
Corruption in Syria today is taking a new unprecedented form. In the past it was mainly practiced by officials seeking bribes in order to facilitate certain transactions, licences or deals. This happened at different tiers of government, high and low, but it didn’t generally seem to pose a serious threat to national security; but now it does.
Wars generate poverty and need, and with the depreciation of the Syrian Lira, the standard of living has plummeted. In this atmosphere and diluted presence of the watchful eyes of the Government due to the conditions on the ground, corruption flourished within the corruptible. And whilst on one hand some would be recipients demanded bribes from other fellow Syrians, there is now a growing tier of corruption in the form of some Syrians accepting bribes from visiting Westerners.
During the Hafez years the entry of Westerners to Syria was highly regulated. Visas were only given to stringently vetted applicants and under very strict control, and for good reasons because Syria has been in a state of war for a long time. Those same regulations continued to be upheld during the early years of President Bashar’s Presidency. However, as the war began, and Syria grew desperate for foreign support, entry restrictions were somewhat more relaxed, and consequently many Westerners were able to enter Syria despite their colourful histories.
Many genuine, non-Syrian supporters of Syria were rightfully allowed into the country, but some others infiltrated, using corrupt locals to sponsor their visa applications.
The last few weeks and months have witnessed a new phase of Syrian – Israeli confrontation. Syria has been deploying her air defences and actually managed to shoot down an Israeli F-16. The use of more sophisticated weaponry on the part of Syria is giving a message to Israel about a new balance of power, and this would be sending the Israeli military into a frenzy of panic and anxiety, trying to maintain their technological upper hand if they can. On this front therefore, Syria has scored a victory tick.
On the other hand, Israel is giving Syria other subtle messages to demonstrate to the Syrian side other different advances it has made. A few weeks ago Mossad director, Yossi Cohen, announced that a watch belonging to Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who was captured and hanged in Syria in 1965, had been recovered from Syria. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-44736802 The question to ask here is how did the Mossad get its hands on this watch? Did corruption play a role? Given that there were no news reports about a military operation that ended up in retrieving this watch, we can possibly assume that there is a likelihood that corruption was involved and that some crooked official is now enjoying his spoils.
The watch as an object does not have a security tag attached to it, but the fact that it ended up where it did is the kind of symbolic message that PM Netanyahu is giving to President Al Assad.
What is more brazen and indeed serious is an assassination that was hardly reported in the Western media. https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Syrian-scientist-killing-is-a-message-to-Assad-and-Tehran-564180 Professor Aziz Isbir, a Syrian nuclear physicist, the director of the Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Mesyaf, was assassinated by detonating a bomb in his vehicle a few minutes after he left home, killing him and his driver. The fingers point to Israel, especially that Israeli war jets have targeted the research centre more than once, the last time which was on the 22nd of July this year, before being repelled by Syrian air defences. An assassination of a scientist of the calibre of Professor Isbir requires detailed preparation and inside information and help. Even the Jerusalem Post in reporting the incident is referring to the assassination as a message to Syria and Iran.
It does not take the work of a genius to conclude that the gist of the message is that “we have infiltrated you deeper that you can imagine and we can do more”.
The hallmarks of corruption are unmistakable to the experienced eye, and whether corruption is restricted to a bribe of a customs officer to turn a blind eye to a carton of Marlboro cigarettes and a bottle of Scotch or to smuggle in a tank, or assassinate an eminent scientist, the price paid for corruption, whether high or low, is always lapped up by cheap hungry ghosts who can be bought and who would sell anything to anyone at the right price.
No one likes to talk about corruption in his/her own country. It somehow seems to be perceived as an overarching stigma that soils the whole community. This would be a very unfair description, because Syrians are by-and-large patriotic and dignified people. But let us face it, without corruption, the terrorists would not have been able to bring into Syria such huge stashes of military hardware before the war began. I am not talking about what later on became the out-of-control open borders of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon that allowed even convoys of tanks to roll in. I am talking about the peacetime period that preceded the war, when a certain amount of weapons and fighters, enough to start a fire, were infiltrated into the country.
Quite recently, it has been reported by some confirmed sources that Syria was going to put restrictions on the entry of non-Syrians. If true, this would be a minor step in the right direction, but given the level of infiltration that some Western elements have generated within Syria, it requires much more than putting restrictions on their re-entry and/or the entry of others of similar suspicious agendas.
Writing this article has been as heartbreaking for me as reading Omar Thaher’s article seven years ago or so, but ignoring the problem and pretending it does not exist neither helps eradicate it nor does it serve the truth. What makes this all more heartbreaking is that those tens of thousands of army personnel who perished, the hundreds of thousands of grieving family members and the millions behind them, are honest, proud people who even refuse to take help when offered to them, feeling it is undignified. It is always the bad minority that can inflict the damage, just like the Jihadis did. Unlike the Jihadis that brandish guns however, and can be identified by their paraphernalia, the corrupt ones do not stand out and can be lurking in any place, any government department, and any street corner, with their insidious nature no less dangerous than the arms brandishing terrorists that almost brought Syria to her knees and, there is no better time for Syria to do the clean-up than now.
I would not be surprised if some readers may see that this article is accusing the whole Syrian Government apparatus of being corrupt. For this reason only, I must emphasize if Syria did not have an overwhelming majority of honest and incorruptible men and women in government, the country would have been lost. We must stop here for a moment and give a special praise to the diplomatic missions who were offered high sums of money to re-bunk, but to no avail. This is not to forget the tens of thousands of soldiers who refused to leave the ranks of the SAA even though they were offered not only much higher salaries, but also positions in the new state if the war was to be won. This is needless to mention the hundreds of thousand, indeed millions who refused to leave their homes under the most dire of situations. It is those solid patriots, with the wise leadership behind them that won the war. Unfortunately however, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the broth, and if a minister has just one single corrupt gate-keeper who controls the flow of information, he/she can be easily placed in the dark, and this can affect the good work of a whole Ministry.
It must be clearly said again therefore that without the corrupt element, the enemies of Syria wouldn’t have been able to send enough kindling fire into the country. It would therefore be unfathomable and unforgivable to turn a blind eye to corruption after the ground battles end, especially when we see acts like the retrieval of Cohen’s watch the assassination of Prof. Isbir.
If Syria wants to avoid more disasters and more serious incidences like that of Cohen’s watch and the assassination of Prof. Isbir, it must declare open season on corruption; the sooner the better.