News Round Up (13 Dec. 2007)

Hopes Rise for Improved US-Syria Relations, NPR

Bush Warns Against Syria Interference, The Associated Press

According to Livni, Syria's role in the Mideast was "unconstructive," as it continued to supply weapons to Hizbullah, meddle in Lebanese politics and support terror organizations, including Hamas.

Economist Intelligence Unit – Business Middle EastThe Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd., 1 January 2008

Bourse on or off? The finance minister, Mohammed al-Hussein, on December 5th presided over the laying of the foundation stone for a new building that will eventually house the Damascus Stock Exchange (DSE). During the ceremony he said that the newly established stockmarket will start its operations ”soon” at a temporary location. This apparently contradicted an earlier statement attributed to Rateb al-Shallah, the chairman of the DSE, by the Middle East Economic Survey, a Cyprus-based newsletter, that the opening of the market, which had been scheduled for early 2008, had been postponed indefinitely owing to the shortage of companies eligible to be listed and to the need for more time to train staff and install equipment.

The new bourse building is part of the Eighth Gate development being carried out in the Yafour district of Damascus by a joint venture of Emaar Properties of the UAE and IGO, an offshore development venture owned mainly by Syrian business people. Anas Kuzbari, IGO’s chief executive, said that the stock exchange building will cost US$12m, excluding the land and electronic systems, and will have a built-up area 10,500 sq metres, including a trading hall accommodating 300 dealers. It is scheduled for completion in 21 months.

The inauguration of the site came at the end of a two-day capital markets conference in Damascus. Yasser Barnea, a board member of the Syrian Commission on Financial Markets and Securities, said that the market is forecast to handle trades totalling US$140m in 2008, rising to US$420m in 2013. He said that about 15 companies were expected to list in the first year, with dealing handled by seven brokerages.

Syrian-German cooperation results in world-market quality medicines

Between February and October 2007 a total of four Syrian pharmaceutical companies have been visited and checked by international EU accredited pharmaceutical industry inspectors from Germany together with their colleagues from Syria.

According to FLC, al-Akhbar's Moscow correspondent reported:

Putin asks Hariri to "rethink" his rhetoric with Syria as "investigation" points clearly to Al Qaeda
Accordingly, the Russian leader told Hariri that he is privy to certain aspects of the deliberations and details of the "Hariri investigation", and these show clearly that things are pointing in the direction of Al Qaeda.

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
13 December 2007, Reuters

BEIRUT, Dec 13 (Reuters) – The assassination of a man poised to become Lebanon's army chief risks drawing the military into a wider political battle already being waged over the presidency.

The army under General Michel Suleiman, who could be elected president by parliament on Monday if rival leaders can agree on the details, has stayed neutral during three years of political tumult involving Lebanon's pro- and anti-Syrian factions.

But ultimately the Western-backed ruling majority would like a strengthened army to take full charge of defending Lebanon's borders, once Hezbollah and Palestinian militias are disarmed.

This is anathema to Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, which says its weapons are vital to deter Israeli aggression as long as Lebanon's armed forces remain weak and under-equipped.

"This assassination adds a note of extreme tension into the question of who will be the next head of the army — after all, people are now getting killed over this," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

"It has brought to the fore the issue of the army's mission. If the United States and Syria had reached some accommodation on the presidency, it doesn't seem to extend to the army," he said.

Speculation abounds on the identity and motives of those who planted the car bomb that killed Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj as he drove towards the Defence Ministry in a heavily guarded district overlooking Beirut on Wednesday.

Few facts have yet emerged to back any of the media theories about the attack, which departed from a pattern of previous ones that killed nine anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.

Damascus denies charges by its Lebanese opponents that it was behind those assassinations, now under U.N. investigation.

Was the killing of Hajj, the first top army officer to be assassinated, belated revenge by al Qaeda-type militants for his role in the army's summer onslaught on Fatah al-Islam fighters based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared?

Others suggest his death was the work of Syria, warning the army not to tilt towards the United States or end its tolerance for the armed activities of the Shi'ite Hezbollah group.

Contrarily, could Hajj have fallen victim to forces unwilling to see the army led by an officer seens as chummy with Hezbollah and close to Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun?

HAND OF ISRAEL?

Damascus has discerned the hand of Israel in the death of a man whose car was blown up back in 1976 after he refused to join a pro-Israeli militia in his southern home village of Rmeish.

Or could Hajj's former Christian militia foes, the Lebanese Forces, have eliminated him before he could become army chief?

Asked about the idea that Islamist militants detonated the bomb that killed Hajj and his bodyguard, a security source said: "It is one of many possibilities, nothing is being discounted."

A puzzling element is how the assailants could plant their device in Baabda, a top-security suburb housing the presidential palace, as well as embassies and diplomatic residences.

"Army people are supposed to have the best protection," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "But the attackers knew Hajj's movements."

Khashan argued that the killing of the 54-year-old chief of army operations was an "in-house" job carried out within the military or by groups with strong military connections.

"It was a coup within the army," he said.

No theory is too far-fetched for conspiracy-minded Lebanese, but most are hoping the shock of Hajj's killing will concentrate the minds of their politicians, still wrangling over how to amend the constitution to allow Suleiman to become president.

Disputes have persisted despite a broad agreement reached two weeks ago that Suleiman should fill the vacancy left when pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ended on Nov. 23.

The president, like the army chief, must be a Maronite Christian in Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system.

Suleiman and Hajj won public acclaim and surging support for the army as a symbol of national unity during the Nahr al-Bared battles in which 168 soldiers and about 230 militants died.

Feuding leaders have said Hajj's killing shows the need to move swiftly to end the months-old deadlock over the presidency, but analysts said the conciliatory mood could be short-lived.

"There's a growing realisation this crisis must be settled, but it's not in the cards that we will have a president next week," said Sami Baroudi, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University, who blamed the opposition for the delay.

"Politicians are making statements to deflect public anger, but then each party will go back to its positions," he added.

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Comments (15)


1. Alex said:

Look what I found at Angry Arab:

“So as I was driving from Berkeley today, I was listening to Fox News on satellite radio. They had a report on the assassination of Hajj. Fox’s correspondent in Beirut identified Al-Hajj as “a life-long opponent of Syrian occupation” in Lebanon. I kid you not. He then introduced a sound bite by Marwan Hamadah in which he blamed the “Syrian-Iranian axis.” Hamadah has not updated his rhetoric to match that of master, Walid Jumblat. A month ago, Walid Jumblat was describing Hizbullah as a terrorist organization; in the last week, he talks about the “need to protect the resistance.” Don’t pin hope on anybody in Lebanon: you will surely be disappointed.”

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December 13th, 2007, 9:49 pm

 

2. Habib said:

No wonder Alex:

“Like the many victims before him, General al-Hajj was a supporter of Lebanon’s independence and an opponent of Syria’s interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs,” Bush said.

Who’s feeding the horse this crap.

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December 13th, 2007, 10:51 pm

 

3. t_desco said:

I am beginning to appreciate all the kind words Karl Kraus had for the press.

Robert Fisk can’t even get right what Marwan Hamadeh said:

“… Walid Jumblatt, who has constantly blamed the Syrians for attacks on democratic politicians in Lebanon did not do so. Nor did Marwan Hamadi (sic) …”
(“Robert Fisk: Syria denies killing General in car-bomb attack”, The Independent, 13 December 2007)

“Marwan Hamadeh … accused the “Syrian-Iranian axis” of hitting “the only body in Lebanon who can balance the power of Hizbullah and other militias”.”
(“Murder of general deepens crisis in Lebanon”, The Guardian, December 13, 2007)

As you know, the Western media often likes to include General Aoun in the “pro-Syrian” camp. General al-Hajj was a close friend of Aoun, so following this silly logic he would also have to be considered as “pro-Syrian”. Yet the same media will blame Syria for the assassination without even noticing the contradiction.

The media loves to describe Fatah al-Islam as “al-Qaeda inspired”, yet there are indications that at least some of its members were not just “inspired” by al-Qa’ida but rather directly linked to its Saudi and Iraqi branches. General Suleiman himself confirmed this, but it was ignored and he will eventually become president and they will still ignore it, endlessly repeating this “al-Qaeda inspired” nonsense…

And I think that it is dangerously naive to assume that al-Qa’ida would not hit back and take revenge for such a terrible defeat as Nahr al-Bared.

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December 13th, 2007, 11:53 pm

 

4. Qifa Nabki said:

Is it just my imagination or wasn’t the phenomenon named “al-Qaeda”, until very recently, the object of much in-the-know cynicism in these parts (i.e. Syria Comment’s comment boards).

I seem to recall a lot of (apt) disdain, curled lips, raised eyebrows, knowing chuckles, and world-weary realpolitiking with respect to the nature of “Al-Qaeda” and what kind of actual organized group and threat it represents. I thought that we were all on the same page, more or less, when it came to Bush’s blustering war on terror, and the great phantom menace that he has been gesturing madly at since 2001… weren’t we?

But now it seems that al-Qaeda is a real group, with superior logistics, incredible technical know-how, astounding political acumen, and a goddamn cherry on top. After all, it now seems that they should be held responsible for the assassinations of Rafiq al-Hariri, Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gebran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem, and Francois el-Hajj, a bewildering list of high-profile murders that have somehow been totally untraceable to “al-Qa’ida”, despite Bush’s determination to net some kind of moral victory for the trillions of dollars and thousands of American troops that he has squandered, not to mention the devastation that his policies have wrought.

I’m sorry, but something doesn’t add up.

If it’s al-Qa’ida, it’s al-Qa’ida. But then y’all need to start reneging on some of that earlier cynicism.

Just my two cents.

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December 14th, 2007, 4:44 am

 

5. Alex said:

Not me : )

I never talked about Al-whatever before.

But seriously … I think there is more that one party behind the different political assassinations in Lebanon.

Remember that George Hawi’s people accused Israel this year … after having accused Syria at the beginning.

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December 14th, 2007, 6:20 am

 

6. qunfuz said:

Fisk in the Independent does the usual. He says that al-Hajj’s role in the attack on Nahr el-Bared makes him an obvious target for Syria, thereby relying on his earlier assumption that the Nahr el-Bared nihilists were sent by Syria. Assumption based on assumption based on … I suspect too many dinners with March 14th people. When Fisk stops describing Junblatt’s wife as ‘glorious’ I might take him seriously on Lebanon again. This is a shame, because he used to be a great reporter.
I expect that about ten people know who is behind the assassinations in Lebanon, and I of course am not one of them. But it seems more and more likely to me that it isn’t Syria.
Here is what I wrote on Fisk and Nahr el-Bared in May:
http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2007/05/blaming-syria-fisk-and-others.html

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December 14th, 2007, 7:24 am

 

7. MSK said:

T-Desco,

As I said in an earlier thread, a revenge killing by the Nahr al-Barid Islamists (whether linked to Al-Qa’ida or Syria or Santa Claus) is a very plausible explanation.

As for Robert Fisk … he used to be really good, but it seems that fame has gone to his head (we can call it the Thomas-Friedman-Syndrome).

But about George Hawi’s people … a lot of people say a lot of things here. These ones didn’t know who did it when he was killed and they don’t know it now either. It’s not like the CPL has a great intelligence apparatus that could uncover anything …

–MSK*

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December 14th, 2007, 8:13 am

 

8. why-discuss said:

Fisk seems totally confused… He claims that Marwan Hamade did not accuse Syria. We all heard Hamade accusing Iran and Syria. Is Fisk not hearing that because he is trying to make some sense or maybe starting to shift his own perpective on Syria’s responsibilities in Nahr el Bared and other crimes?

Reuter: “In the latest report on the U.N. investigative commission presented last month, Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz warned that those who carried out the Hariri attack still had the ability and resources to strike again in Beirut”
Who are those, Mr Brammertz? What are you doing to prevent more killings?

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December 14th, 2007, 8:17 am

 

9. Honest Patriot said:

Notwithstanding any “official” declarations and political games, Lebanon is to Assad what Kuwait was to Saddam.

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December 14th, 2007, 1:28 pm

 
 

11. Friend in America said:

The article in Norman’s link puts the finger on Syria’s most serious economic problem (corruption may be # 2). No wonder Syria has to go to other countries for capital investments. It will take a decade to wean Syria off this and other subsidies that sap the national budget.
Therefore, Syria will do better if it normalizes relations with its neighbors, stops being Iran’s banker to terrorists groups and devotes full energy to improving the Syrian economy. World economies have become very dynamic. Syria can only look to itself if it feels left behind.
Those on this site who wish the best for Syria, including myself, can put aside political differences and together urge Damascus to make economic reform the government’s number 1 goal.

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December 14th, 2007, 4:11 pm

 

12. Akbar Palace said:

But now it seems that al-Qaeda is a real group, with superior logistics, incredible technical know-how, astounding political acumen, and a goddamn cherry on top.

Qifa –

You’re just figuring this out? We Americans figured this out about 6 yeas ago, and already that was too late.

As far as your account of al-Queda’s assets, please remember to subtract: Afghan terror training camps, Taliban protection, and a few thousand of their best “marytrs”.

They didn’t start with Bush and they won’t end with him either.

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December 14th, 2007, 5:07 pm

 

13. Qifa Nabki said:

Akbar,

Maybe I need to put the [/sarcasm] flag out there more authoritatively so that everyone detects the irony … I thought it was patent.

I don’t buy the al-Qa’ida bit, to explain the happenings in Lebanon. I agree with Alex that there could be many groups, and perhaps among them are extremists with some links to what was once known as al-Qa’ida, but for all the reasons mentioned earlier (technical know-how, political acumen, logistical prowess, etc.) I think that these jobs could only have been performed by (or with help from) major mukhabarat agencies. Some say Syria, some say Israel, and others (including many members of my own family) suspect the U.S.

I will continue to subscribe to the spade-calling school until proven otherwise, at which point I’m happy to recant.

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December 14th, 2007, 6:14 pm

 

14. Alex said:

Assad: Syrian Iranian relations will not be shaken for any reason and under any circumstances.

Sarkozy would visit Damascus after Lebanese elections take place.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer, Slovak president Ivan Gašparovič, and Senator Arlen Specter will Visit Damascus within the next two weeks.

الأسد عن العلاقات مع طهران: لن تهتز … وستبقى استراتيجية
دمشق – ابراهيم حميدي الحياة – 14/12/07//

قال الرئيس بشار الأسد أمس إن العلاقات بين سورية وايران «لن تهتز لأي سبب وتحت أي ظرف»، مشيراً الى ان كل يوم يوضع «حجر جديد في العلاقات الاستراتيجية» بين البلدين.

وكان الأسد يتحدث بعد تدشين مشروعين اقتصاديين ايرانيين في سورية. ونقلت «الوكالة السورية للانباء» (سانا) عن الاسد قوله ان افتتاح مصنع السيارات، وهو الثاني خلال شهور «عبارة عن حجر جديد يوضع في البناء الكبير للعلاقات الاستراتيجية بين سورية وايران». واضاف الرئيس السوري ان حضوره تدشين المشروعين «بمشاركة الاخوة المسؤولين الايرانيين رد على كل ما حاول البعض ان يروجه في مراحل مختلفة حول اهتزاز العلاقات بين البلدين»، في اشارة الى ما تردد عن توتر بين دمشق وطهران بعد مشاركة سورية في المؤتمر الدولي للسلام في أنابوليس.

الى ذلك، قالت مصادر ديبلوماسية غربية لـ «الحياة» امس انها «ليست متأكدة» من مشاركة وزير الخارجية السوري وليد المعلم في مؤتمر الدول المانحة في باريس الاثنين المقبل، مشيرة الى ان دمشق «تريد اجراء محادثات ثنائية والإفادة من حضور مؤتمر المانحين لعقد جلسة محادثات رسمية بين الوزير المعلم ونظيره الفرنسي برنارد كوشنير باعتبار انها الزيارة الاولى لوزير خارجية سورية منذ القطيعة قبل أربع سنوات، كما ان دمشق لا تبدي اهتماما كبيراً بمؤتمر المانحين، في حين تربط باريس ذلك بحصول الانتخابات الرئاسية في لبنان وتعتبر ان الدعوة الى مؤتمر الدول المانحة اشارة فرنسية ايجابية».

ورأت مصادر سورية في تصريحات الرئيس نيكولا ساركوزي إزاء استعداده زيارة دمشق «في حال» جرت الانتخابات الرئاسية في لبنان «مؤشرات ايجابية وادراك لدور دمشق بعد قطيعة ومحاولات لفرض العزلة».

وقالت المصادر لـ «الحياة» ان الرئيس النمسوي هانز فيشر سيزور دمشق يوم الاثنين المقبل على ان يلحق به الرئيس السلوفاكي ايفان جازباروفيتش في اليوم التالي. وأوضحت مصادر ديبلوماسية ان الرئيسين النمسوي والسلوفاكي سيزوران قوات بلديهما العاملة في «القوات الدولية لفك الاشتباك» بين سورية واسرائيل (اندوف) لمناسبة الاعياد، وسيجريان جلسة محادثات رسمية مع الرئيس الاسد. وأوضحت المصادر ان سلوفاكيا ستسحب في حزيران (يوينو) المقبل وحدتها التي تضم 120 جندياً من «اندوف». واشارت الى ان السيناتور الاميركي أرلن سبكتر سيزور دمشق في نهاية الشهر الجاري

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December 14th, 2007, 6:32 pm

 

15. Observer said:

I think this the following article from a times should be added to the news. Although it is not directly related to Syria it goes along the previous posts that I put here indicating that Iran will emerge if not already as the dominant player in the region. My predictions is that for the next president in the US, the Iraq front will heat up if the new administration is not cooperative with Iran.
http://atimes.com/atimes/China/IL15Ad01.html

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December 14th, 2007, 6:42 pm

 

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