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2005-03-09

Is Bush Bringing Democracy to the Middle East? A Debate on U.S. Foreign Policy in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and More

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We host a debate on the question: Is Bush bringing democracy to the Middle East? We are joined by Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, Rahul Mahajan, an independent journalist and author and Farid Ghadry, the co-founder and current president of the Reform Party of Syria, a U.S.-based Syrian opposition party. [includes rush transcript]

In a major address yesterday at the National Defense University in Washington DC, President Bush spoke extensively about his vision for the future of the Middle East. But as the president spoke, more than half a million people rallied in Beirut in a massive demonstration called by Hezbollah. That demonstration was pro-Syria, anti-Israel and against US intervention in all countries of the region. In his speech yesterday, Bush renewed his threats against Syria and again indicated that he believes that his policies are leading to an era of sweeping change in the Middle East.

  • President Bush, speaking at the National Defense University, March 8, 2005.

President Bush speaking yesterday at the National Defense University in Washington DC. Today, we are going to continue our close look at the Bush administration’s policies in the Middle East and this question of democratizing the region.

  • Steven Cook, a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • Rahul Mahajan, an independent journalist who has traveled twice to occupied Iraq and is the author of "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond." He is also publisher of the weblog EmpireNotes.org.
  • Farid Ghadry, co-founder and current president of the Reform Party of Syria, a US-based Syrian opposition party.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In his speech yesterday, President Bush renewed his threats against Syria and again indicated he believes his policies are leading to an era of sweeping change in the Middle East.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The people of Afghanistan have embraced free government after suffering under one of the most backward tyrannies on earth. The voters in Iraq defied threats of murder, and have set their country on a path to full democracy. The people of the Palestinian territories cast their ballots against violence and corruption of the past. And any who doubt the appeal of freedom in the Middle East can look to Lebanon, where the Lebanese people are demanding a free and independent nation. In the words of one Lebanese observer, democracy is knocking at the door of this country, and if it’s successful in Lebanon, it is going to ring the doors of every Arab regime. Across the Middle East, a critical mass of events is taking that region in a hopeful new direction. Historic changes have many causes, yet these changes have one factor in common. The businessmen in Beirut recently said, we have removed the mask of fear. We’re not afraid anymore. Pervasive fear is the foundation of every dictatorial regime, the prop that holds up all power not based on consent. And when the regime of fear is broken, and the people find their courage and find their voice, democracy is their goal, and tyrants themselves have reason to fear. History is moving quickly, and leaders in the Middle East have important choices to make. The world community, including Russia and Germany and France and Saudi Arabia and the United States, has presented the Syrian government with one of those choices, to end its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon or become even more isolated from the world. The Lebanese people have heard the speech by the Syrian president. They have seen these delaying tactics and half measures before. The time has come for Syria to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1559. All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush, speaking yesterday at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Today, a debate. Is President Bush bringing democracy to the Middle East? We are joined by Steven Cook, who is a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Rahul Mahajan, an independent journalist who has traveled twice to occupied Iraq, is the author of Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond, also publisher of the weblog EmpireNotes.org; and in Washington, D.C. we’re joined by Farid Ghadry, co-founder and current president of the Reform Party of Syria, a U.S.-based Syrian opposition party. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. Major developments yesterday, massive protest in Lebanon. Can you comment on its significance, also in light of what President Bush had to say?

STEVEN COOK: I think it’s very important to recognize that Hezbollah was able to bring out hundreds of thousands of people as opposed to the tens of thousands that the Lebanese opposition have been able to bring out into the streets. And it shifts the calculus in the region. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have been broadcasting the opposition rallies over the course of the last two or three weeks, creating the impression that all of the Lebanese people were opposed to Syria, and turning our public opinion against the Syrians. Now, with pictures of 500,000 or so people in the streets of Lebanon protesting in favor of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, it certainly shifts the calculus both in Washington as well as Damascus. I think that Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated that he has a certain amount of political support in Lebanon, and it’s going to make it more difficult for the United States to ratchet up the political pressure on him.

AMY GOODMAN: Farid Ghadry, what was your response to this demonstration?

FARID GHADRY: I disagree with the notion that most of the people yesterday were Lebanese. I think we have heard and we know for a fact that the Syrian-Lebanese borders were open yesterday. There was a great flow of cars coming in from Syria. We know that they have been — they have been told — the Syrian laborers in Lebanon have been told to join that march, and there are up to a million laborers in Lebanon, and many of them have joined that, so there are a lot of Syrians amongst the people that you have seen yesterday on TV. And the other thing that we have to keep in mind is that the Hezbollah ordered its militants to show up with their families. So they had no choice. So all of them, all under military orders, all of them showed up on the streets. So, in reality, what Hezbollah is trying to show is that they are powerful, they’re available, and that they should be considered as a threat. But the reality is that many of them were not Lebanese, and they received orders to show up on the streets. So I would caution people to look at the numbers yesterday and believe that this is a wave against democracy in that part of the world. I think it is just a veneer, and I think you are going to see the Lebanese people — what this is going to do is that the Lebanese people that really want to see democracy, it’s going to galvanize them and they’re going to even organize themselves better in the days to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahul Mahajan.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, it’s absolutely true that Syria has illegitimately interfered with the Lebanese democratic processes, but what’s going on here is primarily not about democracy, it’s about the question of whether you think the Syrian true presence is a bigger threat or Israeli expansionism is a bigger threat. One of the key issues for democracy in Lebanon, not even being touched on by Bush, is the sectarian confessional power-sharing arrangement, which by now dramatically over-represents Christians and under represents the rapidly growing Shia population. This is a clear sign. Everything that Bush has said, all the media —

AMY GOODMAN: Hezbollah being a Shia party.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Hezbollah being a Shia party. All of the media coverage in what Bush has said is really an indication of the fact that they’re seizing on an opportunity to capitalize on trying to create regime change in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. When we come back, we’ll continue this discussion, and we’ll continue the discussion of U.S. foreign policy, and what it’s doing from Palestine to Iraq, Syria to Egypt to Lebanon. Is democracy breaking out, as much of the media is saying throughout this last week?

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, talking about Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, actually Pakistan, as well, talking about democracy in the Middle East. Our guests, Steven Cook, Council on Foreign Relations; Rahul Mahajan, empirenotes.org; and Farid Ghadry, Reform Party of Syria, he is speaking to us from Washington, D.C. I wanted to quote from Juan Cole, a professor at University of Michigan, saying, "The simplistic master narrative constructed by the partisans of President Bush held that the January 30 elections in Iraq were a huge success and signaled a turn to democracy in the Middle East. Then the anti-Syrian demonstrations were interpreted as a yearning for democracy inspired by the Iraqi elections." Juan Cole goes on to say, "This interpretation is a gross misunderstanding of the situation in the Middle East. Bush is not pushing with any real force for democratization of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, or Pakistan, where the elected parliament demands in vain that General Musharraf take off his uniform if he wants to be president, or Tunisia, where Zine Ben Ali has just won his fourth unopposed term as president. Democratization is being pushed only for regimes that Bush dislikes, such as Syria or Iran." Steven Cook.

STEVEN COOK: Well, I disagree with some of what Juan Cole says on this issue. I think the president has used the presidential bully pulpit rather effectively in raising the expectations of people in the region about democracy and freedom, which has in turn put pressure on regimes in the region, and that’s why we see some movement there. The leadership in Egypt, the leadership in a variety of other countries in the region have taken steps to try to relieve the political pressure that has been brought to bear from both external, like the United States — external places like the United States, or the internal pressures for change. Where I agree with Professor Cole is that there is a significant difference between the President’s lofty rhetoric about democracy and freedom and the actual policies and program initiatives that the United States has brought to bear to deal with this issue. Those policies smack of the incrementalism of the past, a minimal kind of economic change, social reform, giving people certain openings, but without really pushing the question of political change. I think it’s very clear that we haven’t pushed in place like Saudi Arabia, we haven’t pushed really in places like Tunisia, even in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has recently announced multiparty presidential elections. We haven’t been very serious about pressuring those regimes for more fundamental political openings.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahul Mahajan.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Actually, to put it frankly, it’s the opponents of the Bush administration that are much more pro-democracy than the Bush administration. If you look globally at their plans, there’s — they support the military coup in Venezuela as a pro-democracy step. They kidnap Aristide of Haiti. Bolivian mass demonstrations that have unseated two presidents are hailed as anti-democratic, while mass demonstrations in Lebanon, much smaller, are hailed as pro-democratic. And most importantly, the Iraq elections themselves, which are supposed to be the thing that set off all of these things, including, I suppose, the elections held before January 30, were forced on the Bush administration by Ayatollah Sistani. He overturned Paul Bremer’s plan for a U.S.-dominated caucus system. Later in the Security Council, the United States wanted a resolution authorizing an indefinite military occupation of Iraq with no timeline for elections. What it got because of the other members of the Security Council was a one-year authorization, subject to approval of the elected Iraqi government, and a timeline for elections. So it’s — right now it’s making a virtue of necessity. The only case in which there is a government that it actually supports, that it has imposed — seems to impose any kind of restrictions on is Egypt, and as Steven said, these changes in Egypt are so minor, and in no way imperil Hosni Mubarak’s re-election, that in fact it’s quite possible they were done primarily to make the United States look good as it launches a new initiative.

AMY GOODMAN: Farid Ghadry, do you share this analysis of the Reform Party of Syria?

FARID GHADRY: Well, I have to admit that this administration is eyeing — there are two types of regimes in the Middle East. There’s the violent one, and there are the non-violent ones. The violent ones are Iran — was Iraq — and Syria. The non-violent ones are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where they actually do not support terrorism, and they don’t go out of their way to blow up people. And so, what this administration is trying to do is trying to concentrate on the violent regimes today, because they feel that this is — they represent a clear and present danger not only to the people themselves, not only to terrorism and to the acts of terrorism that takes place from population that have been disenfranchised and oppressed, but also they’re a clear and present danger to this nation. So, if you don’t hear the President speak about Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even though he nudged them once in a while in his speech, and he doesn’t speak about Tunisia and all this, is because he’s trying to wrap his arms around those regimes and kind of pressure them enough to quit on terrorism and quit on those acts of violence, because it affects the nation, affects this country, and after that, you will see that this president will attempt and try and bring democracy, as he said in his speech at the National Defense University, to all of the Middle East. What we have to believe — what we have to understand here is that this is a president who is on the cutting edge of what needs to be done to stop terrorism. Yet there is a whole machine out there in Washington that is not there yet. You have 46,000 employees at the U.S. State Department, countless other employees in different agencies, that don’t see eye to eye with the President, because they have been in the business of supporting dictatorship over the last 30 and 40 years. So the President is on the avant-garde. He is pressing these buttons, and you’re gonna see in the next few months that all of these organizations are gonna rally around him, and they will support what he is supporting. And you are going to see that this will have a tremendous effect on the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahul Mahajan.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, I think that this president particularly seems to identify all of these words you hear — democracy, security, terrorism — all of those things — anti-terrorism, pro democracy, whatever — he all identifies them very simply with some conception of American hegemony. That’s what’s at work here, plain and simple. What’s happened in the Middle East is very clear on that, because, in fact, he has opposed democracy, and he has opposed numerous democratic initiatives in the countries that he himself is occupying — Afghanistan and Iraq — very often only grudgingly allowing elections to be taking place or trying to use them to manipulate to sort of — as a demonstration. Now that he has been forced into the elections in Iraq, then he has now seized this opportunity to actually, under the guise of democracy promotion, widen the war. The primary thing going on right here is the perception that Syria and Iran are actually supporting the resistance in Iraq. There’s very little indication that this is true, especially of Syria, but just as in Vietnam when they said Laos and Cambodia had to be invaded in order to beat the Vietnamese resistance, a lot of people in the administration think that Syria and even Iran need to be attacked in order to beat the Iraqi resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Farid Ghadry.

FARID GHADRY: May I interfere here? Yes. I am really amazed at when I hear when people like Rahul talk. I mean, here they are shooting down democracy in Afghanistan, calling it occupation, shooting down democracy in Iraq, when 8 million people showed up. That amazed even European allies, have stood the ground and have said maybe the President is right. And under the cover that these are regimes that are occupied, and the United States is trying to bring hegemony, I don’t understand what is the — what is so hegemonic about a word such as anti-oppression.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: I’m not shooting down democracy in Iraq. It is a victory of Sistani’s.

FARID GHADRY: No, you are. You are, Rahul. You are, Rahul.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: I am not. Absolutely not. I’m saying it’s a good thing.

FARID GHADRY: Because you are saying —- you are saying that pro-democracy is an American -—

RAHUL MAHAJAN: It’s a good thing that was forced on the United States.

FARID GHADRY: Excuse me, can I — can you let me finish? You are saying that pro-democracy is an American notion.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: No, I’m not.

FARID GHADRY: Pro-democracy is not a U.S. notion. But that’s what you said. This is an American notion, it’s an American hegemony. It is not.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: No, I’m saying that the opponents of the Bush administration are more pro-democracy. Don’t mischaracterize me.

FARID GHADRY: The liberties of the people in the Middle East is more important today than it has ever been in the past, and we need to stand by these people and support them in seeking freedom and liberty and democracy the same way we have it in this country. Why is it so wrong to support millions and hundreds of millions of people?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: It would be nice if we were doing that. We are not.

FARID GHADRY: Everything that we have done, all of those elections that you have seen are what? Are they fake elections, Rahul?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: No, absolutely not. The Iraq elections were not fake elections. The reason is that the United States has very little political power in Iraq. It has a lot of military power, but it was forced to accede to Sistani’s mass mobilization to bring the elections. And once it was forced to accede to the elections, it couldn’t manipulate the results because Sistani would have brought people back into the streets. So, in fact, the election results in Iraq are not a sham. The people who are elected are not pro-American, in fact, some of the parties in the primary United Iraqi Alliance, including SCIRI, actually organized mass anti-occupation demonstrations in April of 2003. I’m not at all saying those are a sham.

FARID GHADRY: Rahul, at the level of Iraqi details of what’s going on, the President in his inaugural speech, yesterday and in many speeches, had made it clear that democracy and freedom in the Middle East is the key issues here. There is no way that anybody in the Middle East tomorrow, today or tomorrow, can kidnap a country again and install another regime or another autocracy. So we have to support that notion that people need to be free in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.

STEVEN COOK: Let me just add a bit to this debate that’s going on here. I think that Rahul is correct in the fact that when Paul Bremer arrived in Baghdad, he believed he was going to stay as pro-counsel for anywhere from five to ten years and, in fact, the United States was outmaneuvered by Ayatollah Ali Sistani who was calling for direct elections, because he knows where the demographic power lies, and that’s with the Shia in Iraq. It was exhilarating to watch the Iraqi election. It was as good as all of the news media outlets suggest it was, but it was only really good for the Shia and the Kurds. You have to remember that the Sunnis basically boycotted this election and had very little representation in writing this constitution. Now there will be some effort to bring them back in. But the United States did not go into Iraq primarily to bring democracy. That was probably third or fourth on the list, behind weapons of mass destruction and some notional connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. On the question of Syria, I agree that there is no country that is going to be able to swallow up another country again, but we also have to recognize that a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is fraught with a certain amount of risk. I agree that Syria’s occupation of Lebanon has been largely illegitimate. But you cannot — it flies in the face of facts to suggest that Syria has not brought some modicum of stability to Lebanon over the course of the last fifteen years. What I fear now is, with the kind of international pressure that is being brought to bear on Syria, Syria will withdraw but ultimately bite back. Its intelligence agents, its supporters in Syria will try to destabilize that country, justifying a Syrian presence or a reintroduction of Syrian troops into that country. We’re playing a dangerous game here.

AMY GOODMAN: Farid Ghadry, I just wanted to ask about your party, the Reform Party of Syria. The Financial Times did a not very flattering piece on you in September. It was when you were pushing for the re-election of President Bush, and it said your "latest project, trying to bring down the Syrian government, follows the launch of a Home Shopping Network for the Middle East, a venture in Russia aimed at extracting gold from old Russian computers in an attempt to start a coffee company to compete with Starbucks." But that while you have quickly abandoned your entrepreneurial ventures, that right now, your goal is to bring down the Syrian government. Is this a fair characterization, and how do you think that can be accomplished?

FARID GHADRY: Well, I have not really quit on my entrepreneurial ventures. As a matter of fact, I’m in the midst of starting a new venture today. So, that is my livelihood, and we will continue to do that. However, you reach point in your life —

AMY GOODMAN: What is that venture?

FARID GHADRY: I’m sorry. I cannot discuss it. We’re still in the patent process right now. Forgive me if I don’t do that. What we are trying to do right now in Syria, and you know, you reach a point in your life when you say to yourself, something has to give in to all of the autocracy, the terrorism, and the lack of freedom in the Arab countries. We are the most backward people on earth. If we have a factory that can produce cans, we think we have technology. People do not understand that our backwardness in the Arab countries, all of the Arab countries, is a real reason for — that economic deprivation is a real reason for all that terrorism that’s taking place. That oppression is taking its toll on its people. So you come to a point in your life and you say that you gotta do something about this. I think having been born in Syria has given me the opportunity to express these things. I believe that a lot of people, other opposition leaders inside Syria and outside Syria have expressed the same thing; and good for them, and we support them, and we hope that we all can reach the point at which we can change the regime of Syria. We are of the belief that unless this violent, pro-terrorist regime changes in Syria, that has stifled the liberties of Syrians for the last 43 years, that have robbed the country of its resources, that have countless prisoners of conscious today, 800 of them, in Syrian prisons, some of them delivered dead to their people, to their families with no excuse. Unless we change that regime, Syria will always be weak.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you think it should be changed?

FARID GHADRY: I think there is a variety of ways to change it. Let me finish the point, Amy. Unless — as long as Syria is weak, Syria will always be dangerous. We have to come out of that oppression and become a strong nation. Once we become a strong nation, you will see that our self-esteem will rise, and then we will join the international community of nations. How do we change the regime? There are a variety of ways. I think what the President is doing, talking about freedom in Lebanon, is very important. I think he needs to talk about freedom in Syria, and once he does that, you will see the Syrian people encouraged. We have had our uprising, March 12 last year, by the Kurdish. It was not supported by the US, but I think today, if we have another uprising, I think it will be a different story. And I think once we have that, the people will eventually peacefully take over the country, and you will see democracy flourish in that part of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you opposed to a U.S. invasion of Syria?

FARID GHADRY: Yes, we are. We don’t believe that, number one: we have never believed in that notion, because I think when you look at the Iraqi formula, this was really a kind of a one-time historical bizarre act. I don’t think it could be repeated, but at the end of the day, I also believe that the Syrian people, who have been controlled by a minority, 5% minority in the country, 95% of the people are oppressed, that if you tell them that we are behind your freedom, they will rise and they will be able to take control of that country.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see Achmed Chalabi as a positive role model, what he pushed for here in this country, the invasion of Iraq, a businessman who was very much supported by the United States, and then went back and tried to become Prime Minister of the country?

FARID GHADRY: We see Achmed Chalabi as the springing board from which all of those ideas are coming to bear onto the U.S. government. We see him as someone who has seen that the only way that you can bring democracy to your nation is by doing what he has done. We believe in that democratic notion. Whether we are going to follow on the same path in Syria, that’s not up to us to call the shots.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see yourself as the Achmed Chalabi of Syria?

FARID GHADRY: No, I don’t. I see myself more as someone who will bring democracy to Syria and let the Syrian people decide what is best for them. I truly believe that there are hundreds of thousands of people inside Syria that, if you give them the chance, they could lead that nation into the peaceful nation that we all want in that part of the world. So, if I’m called upon to serve my country, I will do it, with honor. My native country, I will do it with honor, but if not, I’m a very happy man to have brought democracy to Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you working with the U.S. government now? Does the Reform Party of Syria have U.S. financial backing?

FARID GHADRY: No, we don’t. We are self-financed. We are supported by Syrian businessmen, and we have continued to do that. I don’t think we’ll ever try to get money from the American government. Any money that you get from any government will tie your hands, and you will have shackles around you, so we would rather be free, and we are working independently of any government.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Cook, final comments?

STEVEN COOK: I think it’s very interesting, this discussion of Syria and the Bush administration’s sudden interests in Syria. In fact, the Syrian Accountability Act was something that emerged from Congress, not the administration. And the President signed it as a matter of course, but not because this was an administration policy. In fact, the administration had been praising Syria for its cooperation on al Qaeda while at the same time quietly pressuring them on issues such as Hezbollah and Arab-Israeli peace process. The administration has only taken up the cause of freedom and democracy in Syria and Lebanon as a result of the assassination of Rafik Hariri. So, I think that this sudden emphasis and focus on Syria is something that is fortuitous. It’s just a matter of events. The administration had not been focusing on this issue up until now and had been really consumed with the issues regarding Iraq and Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this idea that the U.S. actually used Syria, sent, for example, Maher Arar, the Syrian-Canadian, through extraordinary rendition? The U.S. took him off a plane in Kennedy airport, flew him to Syria where he said, I will be tortured if I’m sent there. Hadn’t lived there in 20 years, was held for a year in a tiny cell, was tortured, and then sent back to Canada with no charges. The US working with Syria in that case, Rahul Mahajan, and then the US says that Syria’s engaged in torture and is one of the reasons that it, you know, uses to say it is a country that has got to change?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, that’s absolutely true. Of course, the United States has cooperated with numerous dictatorships in this kind of torture arrangement, as well as doing it themselves. If you think that that’s hypocritical, though, you have got to read the State Department Report on Human Rights in which it cites the U.S. created Iraqi government from massive human rights violations but says nothing about human rights violations by U.S. military forces in Iraq. The key here in all of this, I think, is what are the intentions of the Bush administration? I think the only place where Steven and I disagree is I don’t think that this most anti-democratic administration in recent U.S. history has any pro-democracy intentions anywhere. And I would say that the main test of any punitive commitment to democracy is this: There’s a new elected government in Iraq, statutorily by Security Council resolutions and by U.S. agreements, it has sovereignty. It has the right to legislate. It has the right to call for U.S. troops to leave. It has the right to put restrictions on U.S. troop behaviors. It has the right to overturn any of Paul Bremer’s laws. It was elected by a populous that polls consistently show is opposed to the occupation. Even the Shiite-Arabs, something like 70% of them, are opposed to the occupation. If the United States is committed to democracy, and if there is a democracy in Iraq, we should be seeing some reflection of the attitudes in the legislation of this new government. If we don’t see that, then we don’t see any commitment to democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we have to say goodbye, but the conversation will certainly continue. Rahul Mahajan, empirenotes.org, author of Full Spectrum Dominance, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Farid Ghadry of the Reform Party of Syria. Thank you for joining us.

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