Posted by Joshua on Friday, December 12th, 2008
Life on the edge for Syrian artists
By Martin Asser, BBC, Dec 9, 2008
“At the moment we’re in a transitional stage,” Khalid Khalifa said, considering the eight-and-a-half years since President Bashar al-Assad took power following the death of his father. The initial period after 2000 saw great improvements, he said, but then came a serious backlash, with the low point in 2006. That was when the authorities arrested writer Michel Kilo and other dissidents who were calling for changes in Syrian policies vis-a-vis Lebanon.
“It’s a grey area now. No one knows whether freedom is coming or on the retreat. The authorities are restricting the internet for example, but on the plus side they are not detaining people who speak out.”
Khalifa is one member of Syria’s artistic community who backs an on-going dialogue with the authorities in the hope of improving the state of freedom of expression in his country. “The authorities appreciate we are people who are good to negotiate with and we are accommodating – but you know, we get tired. We need hope so we can continue this dialogue and come up with something worthwhile from it.” …
But veteran Syrian documentary maker Omar Amiralai – who for decades has seen his films banned here and around the Arab world – says that is exactly what Syria’s political system is meant to achieve.
The authorities “know that the people don’t really believe their ideology,” he told me.
“The most important thing is that the individual when he stands in front of the regime, the system, the state, shows his obedience and resignation. The idea of revolt or protest disappears from his lexicon.”
Syria may be attempting to come in from the cold diplomatically and politically, but artistically it still has a long way go.
Hit the road, Damascus tells Americans
By Stephen Starr
DAMASCUS – Americans living in Syria are feeling the effects of a snarling international entanglement. Demonstrations denouncing the United States, and the expulsion of a number of Americans working in US-owned institutes and schools, have led expatriates to question the viability of their future here.
Those who have been affected by the slide in US-Syrian relations are not marines, politicians or diplomats. Many are American individuals and families who had built new lives in Syria and come to appreciate the Middle East as something altogether different to that portrayed by US media.
…. Nursing a badly bruised ego, the Damascus government returned a tigerish volley. But the strong rhetoric had more punitive effect on American expatriates in Syria, than it did on Washington . Speaking during a forum on Democracy Now! shortly after the attack, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said, “Killing civilians in international law means terrorist aggression. The Americans do it under daylight. This means it is not a mistake. It is by determination, by blunt determination. For that, we consider this a criminal and terrorist aggression.”…
Via e-mail from Amman, Jordan, Veronica Gonzalez from California said,
I was living in Damascus for 15 months and really fell in love with the city. I had planned on staying at least another three years, but so much for that. The teacher visas were based upon our positions at DCS and with the closing of the school our visas were revoked and we were asked to leave Syria. Initially, we were to leave within 24 hours, but then were given an extension until November 6. Some teachers returned to their homes in the States, other went to Southeast Asia to await the job fair and to regroup and a few went to Cairo or Amman.
Waiting in Jordan, Gonzalez said, “All I will say is that I am very sad about the way the situation was handled. Damascus was home to all the teachers and everyone loved being there and really got into [its] life and people. Obviously, if we are living there, we know better than to support the way the US government handles foreign policies. I don’t think that there is a DCS teacher – American or Canadian – that supports the way my country perceives and interacts with Syria. I don’t know yet if I can go back to Syria. Word has it that we can’t go back any time soon. I hope they will let me go visit my friends at some point.”
Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist in Damascus where he serves as deputy editor of the Syria Times.
A proposal to establish a new international school in Syria is being discussed between members of the foreign community and the government, diplomatic sources said Thursday. …..
One of the proposals being considered would have Syrian businessmen fund the new school, along with other parties willing to contribute. Such proposals are due to fears among foreigners that no school will open in the coming months due to ‘frozen’ US-Syrian relations. The shuttering of the school has been disruptive to the families of many diplomats, who have had to send their children back home to study. Also affected have been the families of Syrians working for foreign or international companies.
……Mr. Arar’s lawyer, David D. Cole, argued that American officials had not only sent Mr. Arar to Syria to be tortured in order to make him talk, but that before doing so, while he was detained here, they kept him from seeking help in the legal system. “Having successfully kept Mr. Arar out of court while they had him in their custody,” Mr. Cole said, “defendants now ask this court to deny any claim for relief because he did not pursue the very avenues of judicial redress that they blocked him from pursuing. That Catch-22 can not be, and is not, the law.” ….
Syria inches in from the cold, BBC, By Martin Asser, Dec. 8 2008
….. Accusations about covert nuclear activity, human rights abuses and the assassination of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon, though strongly denied by Syria, continue to tarnish outside relations.
But if the positive developments of the last few months have shown anything, it is that Syria is too important a regional player to be left out in the cold indefinitely.
That could mean glittering prizes ahead for the tenacious Assad regime, for example a negotiated return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967.
The biggest prize for Syria’s autocratic and unelected ruling elite, however, would be the kind of universal acceptance enjoyed by some of the Gulf sheikhs and certain military hard men in the region.
Lebanese Militant Group Says Leader May Be Dead
AP, 9 December 2008
The leader of an al-Qaida-linked Lebanese group has probably been killed in Syria, according to a statement purportedly posted by the faction on an Islamic militant Web site Tuesday.
Shaker al-Absi went on the run last year after his group, Fatah Islam, battled the Lebanese army for weeks inside a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The statement attributed to Fatah Islam said al-Absi fled Lebanon in 2007 and went to Syria.
It claimed he was later ambushed by Syrian security forces in Jermana, a small town south of Damascus. Al-Absi might have been detained, but most likely was killed, the statement said, without providing further details.
“We don’t know his fate, but we believe he probably was martyred, but we don’t have solid evidence,” said the statement, which could not be independently verified…
Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has just published a new policy brief on Syrian–Israeli Peace. Salem argues that Barack Obama should continue the Bush administration’s policy of pressuring Syria to keep out of Lebanon and Iraq, which has helped push Syria towards a peace agreement with Israel. But the new administration must pursue a more balanced approach with strong diplomacy to reach a land-for-peace deal over the occupied Golan Heights.
Other conclusion include:
Leading the push to secure a peace agreement would help restore America’s image in the Middle East.
Syria views complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as the first step, while Israel does not want to withdraw from the Golan Heights until it is sure Syria has abandoned its support for Hizbollah and Hamas and fundamentally altered its relations with Iran.
The majority of Israeli political elites recognize the value of an accord with Syria, which would put pressure on Lebanon to negotiate a peace treaty, limit Hizbollah and Hamas’ strategic options, and weaken Iran’s influence.
The return of the Golan Heights would be a significant coup for Bashar Assad, the regime—like other Arab regimes that have signed peace deals with Israel—would acquire long term security, and Syria would benefit economically.
Syria will need to change its relations with Iran as part of an agreement.
Iran won’t exchange rights with ‘carrots’
PressTV, 8 December 2008
“Iran will never suspend its nuclear activities and expects the United States to change its carrot and stick approach with the aim of settling its dispute with Tehran,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hassan Qashqavi told reporters on Monday.
“When they [the Americans] stick to their old opinion regarding the suspension of uranium enrichment, our answer will be: Iran will never suspend uranium enrichment,” he added.
US President-elect Barack Obama said on Sunday that he would exercise “direct but tough diplomacy” in a bid to dissuade Tehran from enriching uranium.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, Obama said he is prepared to offer ‘carrots’ in the form of generous economic incentives to persuade the Islamic Republic to wrap up its nuclear program.
However, the US President-elect warned that the Islamic Republic’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment would subject the country to tougher sanctions – or ‘sticks’.
Obama’s election as the next US president has opened the prospect of Tehran-Washington rapprochement, but recent statements suggest that the former Illinois senator is already backtracking away from his campaign promise of ‘a clean break from the Bush administration’s policies’.
Iranian officials have repeatedly called on the Obama administration to live up to world expectations, and forgo Washington’s well-worn and distrusted carrot and stick policy.
As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to enrich uranium for peaceful, civilian purposes. However, the US, Israel and their European allies continue to accuse Iran of trying to develop a military nuclear weapon, an accusation denied by Iran and one that has not been supported by the UN nuclear watchdog.
Salloukh denies reports that Beirut picked Syria envoy
The Daily Star, 11 December 2008
Controversy surrounded the nomination of a Lebanese ambassador to Syria on Wednesday, as Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh denied a report that Lebanon had chosen diplomat Michel Khoury as its first ever envoy to Syria. “The Cabinet is planning to submit the name of Khoury, the current Lebanese ambassador to Cyprus, to become ambassador in Damascus,” a Foreign Ministry official told AFP Wednesday, requesting anonymity…
Syrian Women’s Rights: “the fight does not stop here”
In Syria, decree 121 specifically bans organisations working for women’s rights, but many women’s groups and associations have met informally in private places for years. In this podcast, women from four different organisations based in Damascus speak to Jane Gabriel about their efforts to improve the status of women through research, campaigning and education. Some are working with social surveys of public opinion; others are in dialogue with moderate religious leaders. All of them are trying to get the personal status and punishment codes reformed. As activist Mouna Ghanem says “it is very very discriminatory….for example the punishment of rape, whereby if the man rapes a woman and decides to marry her he will not be punished, they don’t really ask the women if she wants to marry this man or not, she just has to marry him because he raped her, so she is the victim twice”…
Obama wants to ‘reboot’ America’s image in the Muslim world
AP, 11 December 2008
President-elect Barack Obama says he will try to “reboot America’s image” among the world’s Muslims and will follow tradition by using his entire name – Barack Hussein Obama – in his swearing-in ceremony.
The U.S. image globally has taken a deep hit during President George W. Bush’s two terms in office, primarily because of opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, harsh interrogation of prisoners, the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and mistreatment of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Obama promised during his campaign that one of his top priorities would be to work to repair America’s reputation worldwide, and that one element of that effort would be a speech delivered in a Muslim capital.
He pledged anew to give such a speech, though he declined to say whether it would happen during his first year in office.
“It’s something I intend to follow through on,” Obama said in an interview published Wednesday in the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular. So we need to take advantage of that…”