Friday, March 31, 2006

News Round UP (March 31, 2006)

A new law in Congress against Damascus

Bahia Mardini reported in Elaph, a pan-Arab website, on March 30 that: “The Syrian opposition denied, yesterday, media reports and interpretations concerning the statements made by Assistant Secretary of State David Welch in which he confirmed that no communication has been made between the American Administration and the former Syrian vice-President, Abed al-Halim Khaddam, but that Khaddam may have something to say that [the US] wants to hear. The [Syrian] Opposition said that America’s goal on this subject is not to dialogue with Khaddam but ‘to merely listen to the information he has against the Syrian regime’. Khaddam also revealed a new law that the Congress is studying called ‘Syria’s freedom’.

Mardini continued: “On this front, the Syrian Reform party, which has its headquarters in the United States of America, clarified in a statement that Elaph received a copy of that the information from similar parties confirmed that Washington has not dialogued with Khaddam for any other reason and it is not prepared to do so. The statement said that some media attempted to interpret Welch’s statements and hint at things that it did not contain. The statement considered that the main reason behind the American policies is that George Bush had said recently that America’s mistakes-that facilitated dictators in the Middle East-will not be repeated and any political support to Khaddam means going back on these apologies to the Syrian people.”

“The Reform party of Syria said that the statements made by the American Foreign [Affairs Deputy] for Middle Eastern affairs can be understood as indicating that the American [State Department] is looking for any new proof or documents against the Syrian regime and that it may find some when it listens to Khaddam. The Party confirmed that America regards Khaddam as an information center that it can utilize to reach real democracy in Syria. Fareed al-Ghadri, head of Reform Party in Syria said that Welch’s statements meant that [America] is aiming at finding additional information against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following Assad’s last statement to the press that said that [his] internal and external policies will not be changed, which did not please the international community or the American administration. Al-Ghadri hinted at an escalation by Washington against Damascus that will be crystallized with a law called ‘Syria’s freedom’ that the American Congress is! studying now…” - Elaph, United Kingdom
Jumblatt blasts Syria and its 'tool' Nasrallah
Compiled by Daily Star staff
Saturday, April 01, 2006
BEIRUT: The head of the Democratic Gathering, MP Walid Jumblatt, said Friday the "Syrians entered the country with the blood of [Druze leader] Kamal Jumblatt, and left the country with the blood of [former Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri." In an interview with LBC late Thursday, Jumblatt strongly attacked the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon and described Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as a "tool in the hands of the Syrian regime."

Jumblatt also spoke of the presidency and said that the new president should be of the March 14 camp.

He also then referred to MP Michel Aoun as a serious candidate and "one of March 14's leading members."

Jumblatt added that there was a "major division in the country over the relations with Syria and the resistance's arms."

He also said that Syrian President Bashar Assad had "a storehouse of terrorists," asking about the reason why "Arab countries are afraid of him and of his tiny group that monopolizes the country."

Jumblatt added: "Maybe the Arabs don't want to change the Syrian regime; they have their considerations and they respect laws and customs; they don't like democracy a lot and they are unable to change Assad's behavior."

Jumblatt continued: "[U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice talked about changing the behavior and I said during my visit to the U.S. that it is impossible to change the actions of a regime that is used to assassinations and terrorism."

"Consequently, we are in trouble; the March 14 forces and all the Lebanese should know that reinforcing the country against this regime takes a lot of time," he said.

Jumblatt also directly accused a former official in the Syrian intelligence, Ibrahim Howaiji, of killing his father, Kamal Jumblatt.

"Those who perpetrated the crime were all Syrians; there weren't any Lebanese accomplices," he said.

As for his former close relations with the Syrian regime and his decision to turn against it, Jumblatt said: "When you are attached to this regime in the name of the national and the Palestinian cause, you become brainwashed."

He added that he made the decision to stand up against the Syrian regime following the assassination attempt that targeted Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamade.

He added that it is "impossible to acquit Syria and the Lebanese security regime from the assassination of Hariri."

Asked about claims of a secret meeting between him and French President Jacques Chirac, Jumblatt said: "I met with Chirac and we agreed not to inform the media about the meeting. We have talked about the situation in Lebanon." He refused to reveal more details.

According to the Druze leader, the influence of Syria is still present in Lebanon due to Hizbullah's support.

Jumblatt said that Nasrallah was a "tool in the hands of the Syrian regime to exert control over Lebanon."

Jumblatt also noted that the "integration of the resistance in the Lebanese Army would lead to the balance of powers." - The Daily Star
Khartoum Conference: Arab leaders expressed their support for Syria’s leadership and rejected US pressure and the threat of sanctions on Damascus at the Arab League summit here yesterday.

Lebanese leaders traded accusations and insults at the Arab summit meeting in Khartoum on Tuesday, and then two days later during a televised cabinet session. At Khartoum PM Siniora provoked criticism from Lahoud and later Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri when Siniora attempt to replace the clause voicing support to the resistance with one that supported "Lebanon's right to liberate its land" as inappropriate. Berri accused Siniora of contradicting the Ministerial statement agreed on by the government. "You are currently ruling due to the confidence you received in parliament over the ministerial statement, and neither you nor the council of ministers have the right to change it," he said.

The ministerial statement states that "the government considers the Lebanese resistance a genuine and natural expression of the Lebanese people's national right to liberate their territories in the face of Israeli aggressions."

"I thought that enthusiasm for the resistance was rooted here in Lebanon more than in other Arab countries, but you proved the opposite at the Arab summit in Khartoum, Mr. Premier, and what you did was close to a sin and I thank you for those words," Berri said and abruptly ended the parliamentary session.

Later, Lahoud went on the offensive against Hamade and Fatfat. Hariri Says Street Protests are Still a Possibility if Dialogue Fails to Remove Lahoud and criticizes Lahoud's 'Cheap Attempt' to discredit Saniora at the summit

The Jerusalem Post asks what happened to the Cedar Revolution? The article concludes:

Nadim Shehadi, from Chatham House, says no one has the stomach for more fighting, which is what would occur if the Lebanese army tried to forcibly shut down Hizbullah or go into the refugee camps.

"In a nutshell, national reconciliation offers two choices: internal confrontation or paralysis," he says. "I think the Lebanese will choose paralysis."

Whatever the hopes of the Cedar Revolutionaries and the intentions of the politicians, Syria and Iran still hold the keys to Lebanon's domestic tranquility. And just as Syria has been ducking the UN investigation into the Hariri murder, it - along with Iran - will continue to make trouble with Hizbullah and the Palestinian rejectionists.

"Nothing good will come of the national reconciliation meetings," says Zisser. "The Lebanese may get rid of Lahoud, but he only has a year left to his term anyway."
President Lahoud blew his top yesterday, claiming he had been insulted by fellow government members who were giving him the cold shoulder.

U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday again accused Syria of interfering in Lebanon's affairs and allowing insurgents to enter Iraq which shares common border with Syria.
"Our message to (Syrian President) Bashar Assad is that we expect -- if they want to be a welcomed country into the world, that they have got to free Lebanon, shut down cross-border infiltration, and stop allowing Hezbollah, PIJ (Palestine Islamic Jihad) and other terrorist groups to meet inside the country," Bush told the Freedom House, an independent pro-democracy group.
Can Turkey bridge the gap between Islam and the West?
By Yigal Schleifer, Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 2006

After decades of keeping the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East at arm's length, Turkey is trying to strengthen relations with its neighbors while at the same time recasting itself as a mediator in the region.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech at the opening of the Arab League summit in Khartoum, Sudan, where Turkey for the first time was given the status of "permanent guest" by the organization.The prime minister's appearance at the summit - the first time a Turkish leader has done so - is the latest in a string of eyebrow-raising foreign policy moves: In February, a top Hamas official visited the capital, Ankara; soon after, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari made a bridge-building trip; and the Turkish government recently announced that it was planning to host firebrand Shiite Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for an official visit - since put on hold. [complete article]

Washington endorses the unilateral solution
Sahar Baasiri, of the independent, anti-Syrian An Nahar, commented in her column March 31 on the declaration by the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, that her country is open to Ehud Olmert’s plan to mark Israel’s final borders by 2010. She noted that Rice’s announcement came one day after the conclusion of the Arab summit at Khartoum, which specifically declared the Arab rejection of unilateral Israeli solutions. “In simple terms, this means that Washington no longer insists on a negotiated settlement, and that it now publicly endorses a unilateral Israeli solution.” The writer argued that this is a departure from the declared American policy that supported the peace process.

She argued that Rice justifies such change by two reasons. The first is the success of the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which in the end brought about a Palestinian-Israeli cooperation. The second reason is the fact that Hamas now controls the Palestinian government. The U.S. considers such government as illegitimate, and it has agreed with Israel to sever all contacts with it.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Syria Rescinds Ban on Religious Lessons in Mosques

Ibrahim Hamidi - the man in Sham - just published an article in al-Hayat explaining that Syrian authorities have set aside the recent decision of the Director of Awqaf in Damascus خالد المعتم Khalid al-Ma`tim, which forbid teaching religion lessons in the mosques and required them to close in between prayer times. The law had also restricted Qu'ran classes to two times a week and cancelled the early morning and evening calls to prayer. This was all highly provocative and caused a backlash. ("Syria Comment" reported on this decision before the international press thanks to a guest writer from Syria.)

As a result the military academy invited the religious authorities of Syria, including Muhammad Habash and the Grand Mufti Hassoun, to a conference on religion. According to Ibrahim, this was the first time that the military establishment in Syria has invited religious figures to common dialogue in the academy since the Baath came to power in 1963.

Habash and others used the occasion to call for establishing religious instruction in the military academy, claiming there was no contradiction between Islam and Arab nationalism and that the two sprung from the same values and reinforced each other. Habash criticized the new party law indirectly by stating that there is no reason to forbid the establishment of religiously based parties. He pointed to the success of Hamas and the resistance in Lebanon as well as religiously based parties in Iraq and Egypt. He suggested that Syria should embrace this new religious awakening within Syria as it does in its foreign policy to strengthen Arabism.

This is a very smart line of argumentation on his part. It traps President Bashar in his own contradictory policy of supporting Islamic parties in neighboring countries while suppressing them at home. This is the same thing that Bayanouni and Khaddam are doing in the external opposition and that the Damascus Declaration folks called for within Syria. The religious establishment in Syria will be able to use the growing strength of the religious opposition to fight for more latitude for its activities at home.

Bashar will have to respond positively to Habash if he wants to neutralize, or at least attenuate, the opposition's call for greater religious freedoms in the political arena. This is what we have seen happen in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. The state has been steadily dragging the edges of the imperial tent outward in the direction of religious authorities to keep them working within the system rather than joining the opposition. It places the Syrian state in a very awkward position. The military authorities in Syria have always had an inimical relationship to political Islam, as the attempt to ban Islamic instruction demonstrated. Syria can no longer fight Islamism through suppression alone. It must find a way to tame it and bring it over to the state's side. This will be very difficult. The only real way to do this is to inculcate "liberalism" and change the fundamentalist underpinnings of much of the Islamic revival. Liberalism is something that the Baath Party doesn't know much about for it contradicts the very nature of a one party state. If the Baathists adopt real liberalism it will undermine their own raison d'etre.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Asad Interview with Charlie Rose (Aired March 27, 2006)

The full transcript of President Asad's interview with Charlie Rose, which was shown Monday on PBS is now up at SANA.

Addendum: It can be viewed in its entirety here.

The President did fairly well. I did not see the show, which does not allow me to read his body language, which is often as important as the actual words.

He criticized US policy in Iraq severely, claiming America was sinking into the Iraqi swamp. This is no longer shocking to an American audience that has become accustomed to the notion that the US is failing in Iraq. He did the right thing in insisting that Syria wants better relations with the US, the most technically advanced and powerful country in the world. And tried to explain Syrian support for Hizbullah and Hamas, organizations Washington considers terrorist.

The low point of the interview was Asad's response to Rose's questions about the Holocaust. Asad was evasive. Here is the exchange.

President Assad: If you ask many people in the region they would say to you that the West exaggerated the Holocaust. People say there was a Holocaust but they exaggerated it.

Journalist: You don’t believe that though, do you?

President Assad: It’s not a matter of how many were killed, half a million, six million or one person. Killing is killing. For example, eight million Soviets were killed, so why don’t we talk about them? The problem is not the number of those killed but rather how they use the Holocaust. What do the Palestinians have to do with the Holocaust to pay the price?

Journalist: Even people that I know in Iran say they don’t believe what the President is saying. There are people who believe it…

President Assad: In my country you’d see two opinions as well.

Journalist: I want to make sure I understand what you believe. You believe there was a Holocaust where the anti-Semite Nazis killed millions…

President Assad: We, Arabs, are Semitic too. Definitely there were massacres that happened against the Jews during the Second World War, but I’m talking about the concept and how they use it. But I don’t have any clue how many were killed or how they were killed, by gas, by shooting... we don’t know. Journalist: Part of the Nazi policy was to exterminate the Jews. This is not just a massacre.
When Asad said, "I don’t have any clue how many were killed or how they were killed," he enrages an American audience. He should have found out how many were killed by now. He has been asked this many times. There is no excuse or need to obfuscate on this. It doesn't detract from the Palestinian issue to admit the size and extent of the holocaust. By making the Holocaust a perennial sticking point between West and East, the Palestinian issue is diminished. It takes Asad off message and undermines his credibility.

US commentary about the interview will turn into a debate over the holocaust and not the issues Asad hoped to address, such as terrorism, US policy in the region, and how to improve relations between Syria and the US.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

New Evidence in Hariri Murder

Asharq al-Awsat reports that a new phone call transcript has been given to the UN Hariri investigation team by British intelligence. The phone call was held between a high-ranking Lebanese official and his Syrian counterpart in which the former confirmed to the latter that the assassination had taken place and Al-Hariri had in fact been killed."

Shocking New Evidence in Hariri Murder Inquest
Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat
By Youssef Diab

Informed sources have revealed told Asharq al-Awsat that the international commission investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri received the transcript of a phone call conversation between a Lebanese official and his Syrian counterpart in which the former confirmed to the latter that the assassination had taken place.

The sources alluded to what was mentioned in commission chief Judge Serge Brammertz's report on achieving a major breakthrough, and cited sources in the international commission that "the breakthrough came about by finding solid proof that periodic meetings were held between Lebanese and Syrian security officials and officials in a Lebanese group known for its allegiance to Syria, in addition to analyzing scores of phone calls held between security officials in that group, the Syrian intelligence center in Beirut, and an important official head office which German Judge Detlev Mehlis referred to in his first report.

The sources confirmed that "analysis of the phone calls, which began on the evening of Sunday 13 February 2005 and continued until 4 pm the following day--in other words, four hours after the crime took place--showed that most of the conversation revolved around the crime. In addition, the commission received the text of a very important phone call held between a high-ranking Lebanese official and his Syrian counterpart in which the former confirmed to the latter that the assassination had taken place and Al-Hariri had in fact been killed."

The same sources pointed out that the international commission received the transcript of the phone call held between the two high-ranking officials from the British intelligence and that the content was the reason behind British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's statements one week after the crime that he believed Syrian sides are involved in Al-Hariri's assassination. The Lebanese sources noted that the commission stepped up its activities upon the return of its chief Brammertz from New York after he presented his report to the Security Council.

They explained that Brammertz is trying to complete the biggest part of the investigations on the Lebanese level before setting a date for his meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Vice President Farooq al-Shara in Damascus.

The sources foresaw difficulties in Brammertz's ability to complete the investigation before mid-June. The sources cited members of the international investigations commission saying that Brammertz does not want to extend his mission. The sources did not rule out the return of former commission chief Judge Detlev Mehlis to resume the investigations, particularly since the latter praised Brammertz's report, describing it as professional and noting that it was on the same track and did not ignore any of the existing evidence in the file.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is a Grand Alliance Forming against Asad?

Khaddam planned defection since 2003, Bayanouni reports.

Khaddam told Bayanouni in 2003 that he was preparing to join the opposition; "he would join the opposition and announce this position when circumstances permitted." This was well before the Lahoud extension and Hariri killing, events that many believed drove Khaddam to defect. Khaddam has said that he was against Bashar succeeding Hafiz al-Asad in 2000, but was unable to stop it at the time for fear of destabilizing Syria. The big question is whether Khaddam began discussing ways to take power for himself in Syria with Jumblatt and Rafiq al-Hariri when Hafiz's health began failing in 1999.

Bashar al-Asad feared Khaddam was doing just that, which is why he determined to overturn the power structure in Lebanon and push Jumblatt and Hariri from power. It is also why he tried to sideline the Khaddam, Shihabi, and Kanaan triumvirate in Lebanon even before becoming President in 2000. Asad believed the triumvirate had turned against him and joined the Lebanese in a plan to block his efforts to succeed his father.

Khaddam will meet with Saad Hariri and Jumblatt in Paris later this month to find common ground between the new Khaddam-Muslim Brotherhood alliance and Lebanon's leading anti-Syrian politicians. This is powerful stuff. It sheds new light on Bayanouni's eagerness to attach Khaddam to the Brotherhood. It seems that Khaddam could promise the Muslim Brotherhood to bring in Hariri's Future Movement behind their efforts. If Hariri and Jumblatt endorse Bayanouni's opposition coalition, it will be hard for the US not to endorse it as well. Jumblatt met with Khaddam before and after traveling to Washington last month. Everyone speculated that he was acting as a messenger and advocate for Khaddam. It seems that Jumblatt's efforts are paying off. For Bayanouni and Khaddam, the road to Damascus may be through Beirut and then Washington. Word is that Western leaders have been invited to attend the meeting. We will have to see who turns up.

This explains why Bashar is cracking down on the Syrian opposition that has traveled to the West and why he is going after the entire Khaddam family. He is frightened that Washington is preparing a grand alliance. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are trying to slow down this polarization of the region, but their warnings may fall on deaf ears. If Hariri and Washington decide to back Bayanouni, Saudi and Egypt will be forced to choose sides, something they will find very difficult to do.


Leading Syrian dissidents belonging to the Rally for Syria group will hold talks with prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians, including Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, in Paris later this month. Other high profile figures attending the talks include former Syrian deputy president Abdel Halim Khaddam - who has been living in Paris since falling out with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad - and Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

"Jumblatt, Hariri and Khaddam head the list of those invited," Rally for Syria co-ordinator, Fahd al-Agha al-Misri told Adnkronos International (AKI). Misri said that a number of Western political leaders have also been invited to participate in the discussions.

Can Lebanon fight Syria?

Arab foreign ministers to discuss resolution supporting Syria at Khartoum
25 March 2006: (DPA)

DAMASCUS - Syria’s foreign minister said on Saturday that the Arab ministerial preparatory meeting in Khartoum is to discuss a draft resolution to be adopted by the Arab League Summit which would ”condemn” sanctions against Syria and call on Washington to lift them, Syria’s official news agency SANA reported.

Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told SANA in Khartoum, where he was attending the ministerial preparatory meeting ahead of the Arab Summit beginning March 28, that the ministers will send the summit a draft resolution which “condemns the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US administration and asks it (Washington) for constructive dialogue (with Syria) and to lift these sanctions.”

The resolution stresses “full Arab solidarity with Syria,” Moallem said.
Naharnet is less sanguine about the Khartoum Summit. It writes that, "While the tension between Lebanon and Syria is on the summit agenda, it appears that the leaders will avoid any statement which could be seen as taking sides in the dispute." Here is a bit of the article:
The situation is very dangerous and sensitive," Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa told reporters Friday while speaking of the overall agenda. "But we in the Arab world have enough awareness to behave and react to face all the big and dangerous problems."

The foreign ministers of 21 Arab states and the Palestinian Authority begin a two-day meeting Saturday that is supposed to do the bulk of the hard work for the summit -- reach consensus positions on Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine as well as the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and the tension between Syria and Lebanon.

Five heads of state -- those of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia -- have given notice they will not be attending the summit that starts Monday and is due to end Tuesday, diplomats said.

"We are facing very crucial weeks in the history of the region because of several issues," the United Nations' envoy for the Middle East, Terje Roed Larsen, said earlier this week, referring to Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, Lebanese-Syrian relations and the Palestinian territories.

Most Arabs worry that Iraq is drifting toward civil war.
It is not only the Arabs that worry about Iraq slipping into civil war. The Europeans clearly expect things to get worse in Iraq as well. Volker Pertes, who often comments on Syrian matters, writes in Qantara: "Three Years after the Fall of Saddam Hussein: The Federal Republic of Iraq." His article begins, "After the departure of the USA, Iraq could develop into a federation – with the aid of Europe." But this cheerful first line is followed by more disconcerting analysis. Volker continues:
The USA, the self-appointed engineer of the Iraqi situation, finds itself caught in a dangerous dilemma, which poses difficulties for Europe as well. Should what is effectively an occupation force remain, then resistance and terror will continue. If the Americans and coalition troops decide to leave, then civil war and division would be imminent.

The longer violence and insecurity prevail in central Iraq, the greater the tendency for the Shiites in the south to build up their own structures and the Kurds in the north to push for independence. Separation and civil war will further increase the readiness of neighboring countries to interfere in Iraqi affairs.
"By constructing its policy in the Middle East on Iraq and Lebanon, the US is building on quicksand." This conclusion was repeated to me by a number of highly placed Syrians and become a nostrum of Syrian politics. The political elite used this notion to reassure itself and others that it knew what it was doing; Syria would be OK if it just held firm to its anti-American policy and stuck with Arabism. America’s two allies, Iraq and Lebanon, were unstable. The Syrians believed they were weak reeds on which to build a policy. "They are not nations," I was told. "The American project will collapse on its own. Give it time." Syrians were little convinced of the long-term viability of US policy. By unleashing the forces of sectarianism and, even worse, by counting on religious communalism to form the foundation stone of democratic consensus and resurgent national strength in the region, the US was setting out on a fool’s errand, I was assured.

Today, as both the Iraqi and Lebanese governments remain mired in crisis, neither of which has much prospect of ending soon, Syrian smugness seems less like whistling past the graveyard. Iraq has a president and designated Prime Minister, but cannot settle on a government for fear of ceding the Shiites and Iran too much power. Lebanon has a government and Prime Minister but cannot decide on how to replace its president, Emile Lahoud, for fear of ceding the Shiites and Syria too much power. The Shiites have said they will accept General Aoun as a replacement for Lahoud, but Hariri's people refuse Aoun, considering him too close to Syria and the Shiites. Many would prefer a weak Lahoud to a strong Aoun. They have yet to put forward a candidate of their own. There is no point in entering such a divisive battle until Hariri's people can ensure they will have the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Lahoud. How they will get that is anyone's guess.

In the meantime, Hariri is accusing the Hizbullah and Aoun's movement of wanting to prolong Lahoud's presidency. U.N. envoy to Lebanon Terje Roed-Larsen tried to help Hariri by insisting on Sunday that Lebanon must try to merge Hizbullah's military wing into its army. A top Hizbullah official, however, was having none of it. He said Roed-Larsen is wasting his time. The US also took another step to weaken Hizbullah. The Treasury Department decided on Thursday to act against al-Manar, a satellite TV operator, al-Nour Radio and their parent company, the Lebanese Media Group. Any assets found in the United States belonging to these three outlets will be frozen and Americans are forbidden from doing business with them. The department alleges that al-Manar and al-Nour Radio are the "media arms" of Hizbullah that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy took credit for the Treasury Department action. The next step will be to freeze the assets of top Hizbullah members. The US State Department also warned Syria to worry more about the Hariri investigation. "If I were sitting in Damascus and looking at the course of this investigation, I would be worried about where it would head in the future," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said. There is no let up in American pressure on Syria in sight. Italy, Greece and Spain, however, are making noises about signing the EU trade agreement with Syria, which cannot please Washington.

The Syrian government is continuing its crackdown on and harassment of opposition leaders who have traveled to the West. Samir Nashar, leader of the Free National Party, was arrested yesterday, IRIN news reports:
Agents of the military secret service detained Samir Nashar, 60, at his office at 9 pm local time without giving reasons for the arrest, a spokesperson for the Syrian Human Rights Organisation (SHRO) said.

"We're calling for the immediate release of Mr. Samir Nashar, who has a serious heart condition," said Bassam Ishaik of the SHRO. "We're also demanding that the campaign of pressuring opposition figures stop."

The government gave no comment on the reported arrest.

Nashar, the spokesman of the Syrian Free National Party, a small opposition party established a year ago, recently returned from a meeting of exiled opposition figures in Washington, DC.
Sami Moubayed gives his read of the "Brammertz Report". It is also worth reading his article "What the future holds for Syria" to get a sense of how Syrians are thinking about their country's future. Sami explains how much Syria is counting on Egypt and Saudi assistance.

Speaking of which, Prince al-Walid Ben Talal has given Syria a vote of confidence and the Lebanese opponents of Syria a dressing down. He was quoted by L'oreint-Le jour as saying that the Saudis support Syria: « les Syriens constituent la force des Libanais et nous les soutenons ». "Those who are working to sanction the Syrians will fail," he added. Here is the article:

À partir de Damas, l’émir al-Walid ben Talal critique la majorité
L’émir al-Walid ben Talal s’en est vivement pris, à partir de Damas, aux membres de la majorité au Liban, les apostrophant en ces termes : « Vous qui retournez vos vestes, vous serez les seuls à partir (quitter le pouvoir). » « Ceux qui œuvrent à sanctionner la Syrie ne parviendront pas à leurs fins car ils ne peuvent pas aller à l’encontre de l’histoire, de la géographie et des valeurs culturelles », a-t-il affirmé, soulignant que « les Syriens constituent la force des Libanais et nous les soutenons ».
L’émir al-Walid ben Talal a également affirmé que « les relations syro-saoudiennes sont intouchables et constituent une ligne rouge ». S’adressant au président syrien Bachar el-Assad, il a indiqué que « le roi Abdallah ben Abdel Aziz était et restera avec vous car il est un homme de principe ».

Saturday, March 25, 2006

What is the Government's Religion Policy?

Is the Syrian Government trying to provoke sectarianism?
by an Anonymous Syrian, living in Syria
March 20, 2006

One of the central policies of the Baath Party from its inception has been to build “true” national consciousness and to treat all Syrians, regardless of their religious background, as equals. This is a laudable goal. It is why the Baath Party won many supporters among Syria’s minorities and even among the Sunni majority. Every Syrian with the slightest notion of our land’s painful history, knows the price Syria has paid for its religious divisions. Indeed, the main factor legitimizing the present Baathist government is its promise to protect Syria from the run-away sectarianism that has been the cause of such suffering and weakness in Lebanon and more recently in Iraq. But is the Baath party serving the cause of unity?

There have been a series of events which make one question the sincerity of the government's policy. First, the government’s lopsided foreign policy, which has lead up into such a close alliance with Iran is worrying. Many Syrians do not believe this is in the national interest. It deepens sectarian apprehensions in the country because one must wonder what concessions are being made to Iran.

Over the last 2-3 weeks, the Ministry of Islamic Trusts (Wazarat el-Awqaf) has banned religious lessons from being conducted in Mosques in Damascus. Mosques are now required to kick everyone out and close their doors after prayers. This is not the first time the government has done this. In reaction to the bitter experience with the Muslim Brotherhood during the early eighties, the government banned all educational activities conducted in mosques. This draconian policy did not end the desire of Muslims to study their religion, nor did it end the practice; it merely displaced it. Within a few years, religious classes were being held in homes around the large cities. As a result, the government reversed its policy, banning the lessons in private homes and reopening mosques to Qu’ran lessons. This way an undercover Mukhabarat agent could sit in and report back all activities. This has been the established routine for almost 20 years. The late Hafez Al-Assad even encouraged the establishment of Qu’ranic lessons in every mosque under the name of the Assad Institute for Teaching the Qu’ran. This policy made Syria a center of moderate Islam. Extremism was not taught in mosques. Syria’s native brand of Islam (moderate Sufism) was given a chance to flourish while other, more intolerant, varieties of Sunni Islam, such that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Wahhabism, were discouraged. Exceptions were rare.

About 20 days ago, the Minister of Awqaf re-imposed a ban on lessons in Mosques. Reportedly, Muhammad Habash, a sheikh and MP who is closely affiliated with the government, was expelled from a mosque for remaining inside it after prayers were finished. He was there to film a biography.

So far, this law has not included Aleppo, where Qu’ran lessons continue to be conducted in mosques, but people in Damascus are complaining bitterly about this new situation. This policy will be self-defeating, as it was twenty years ago. By halting the instruction of moderate Islam under the surveillance of the mukhabarat, the government will open the door for more radical versions of Islam.

Another event sure to kindle the flames of sectarianism has taken place in Raqqa. The Iranians have funded the construction of a huge Shiite shrine there. It was inaugurated a few days ago with a huge celebration called The Memory of the Battle of Siffin. It was at the battle of Siffin, near Raqqa, that Imam Ali was tricked by Mu’awiyya into suing for peace. Mu’awiyya’s troops raised Qu’rans on the ends of their spears to bring a halt to the fighting and demand mediation. Ali, who preferred conciliation, stopped the battle even though many claim he was winning. This pacifism let to infighting among his supporters. The Khawarij, or dissenters, who believed Ali had sinned by not letting God decide the outcome on the battlefield, denounced Ali and abandoned him. This left Ali’s forces weakened and vulnerable to the Umayyads claimed the Caliphate and established a new dynasty in Damascus, which was to ensure that Sunni Islam predominated throughout the Middle East.

Ever since, the Shi’at Ali, or partisans of Ali, have been persecuted underdogs in the Arab world. Celebrating the battle of Siffin in Syria is sure to exacerbate sectarian sensibilities at this time. The Iranian backed celebrants will criticize the Sunnis and praise Shiites. The government’s yielding to Itan in its desire to promote their version of Islam at this time does not seem to be the best thing to do to promote national unity.

This event along with the closure of mosques to lesson is putting the advocates of modernity into a real difficult position with their supporters. The average Sunni is wondering whether there is a systematic plan to erase him out. Radicals can now come in with a convincing argument.

Considering the current situation in Iraq and the surge of sectarianism in the region, this would seem the least wise thing to do at this time. The event is being done at a time when Sunnis in Damascus are prevented from enjoying the kind of freedom enjoyed for the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, Aleppo is celebrating its status as Capital of Islamic Culture, but the emphasis of the celebrations are largely on Aleppo, the city, and not on it’s Islamic Culture. There has been some grumbling in the city about this.

These events raise a few questions: Is the government trying to suffocate moderate Sunnis? It is hard not to believe that by driving Islamic lessons underground, Takfiri groups will sprout up in ever greater abundance. Would such a rise in radicalism (indirectly instigated by the government) give the government reasons to stop the current demand for greater political freedom? Is the government trying to play the Sunni - Alawi game to divide the country once more along sectarian lines? Has Syria leaned so far toward Iran that it must appease it on the religious question? These are a few of the questions that Syrians are asking themselves.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Siddiq Saga continues... (by t_desco)

Zouheir Siddik nie s’être jamais rétracté sur son témoignage

Zouheir Siddik, un des « témoins-clés » dans l’affaire de l’attentat contre Rafic Hariri, a nié hier s’être « jamais rétracté sur le témoignage » qu’il avait fourni à la commission d’enquête internationale en charge de ce dossier.
Dans un communiqué publié à Paris, M. Siddik affirme que « toute information contraire relève de l’erreur et de la malveillance ».
Il assure en outre n’avoir jamais été poursuivi pour « faux témoignage » et que ni la commission d’enquête, ni les autorités françaises ni libanaises « n’ont mis (sa) parole en doute ».
Enfin, M. Siddik affirme rester à la disposition des enquêteurs et « de toute juridiction internationale amenée à juger » de l’affaire Hariri et indique avoir très récemment rencontré des membres de la commission d’enquête à qui il a réitéré son précédent témoignage.
Élie Masboungi, L'Orient-Le Jour

The latest UN report confirms that Brammertz is still evaluating the credibility of Siddiq's testimony:

29. ... It was stated that further investigation was required into an allegation that a Mitsubishi truck was seen in a camp in Zabadane (Syria) shortly before the explosion This allegation needs to be further corroborated and remains an on going line of enquiry in the context of the evaluation of the information provider.

It was Siddiq who mentioned the Zabadane camp (§110, first Mehlis Report).

The new statement by Siddiq is contradicted by several earlier statements:

Syria's UN Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad told the Security Council on December 13, 2005:

The Syrian Embassy in Paris received a handwritten letter from him (Zuheir Siddiq) stating that he had been kidnapped and coerced to give his previous testimony, upon which the Commission continues to rely in its new report.(PDF)

The second Mehlis Report stated that DNA evidence contradicted parts of Siddiq's testimony (§107, first Mehlis Report):

28. In order to further investigate Mr. Saddik’s statements about the planning and execution of the crime, the Commission obtained DNA samples from Mr. Saddik, as well as from his wife, children and brothers-in-law. Those samples were analysed to determine whether there was a match with either evidence from an apartment in Al-Dahiyye, Beirut, in which Mr. Saddik stated he attended planning meetings, or evidence retrieved from the crime scene. The results of those comparisons were negative.(PDF)

Therefore, Siddiq's claim that "ni la commission d’enquête, ni les autorités françaises ni libanaises « n’ont mis (sa) parole en doute" is simply not true.

A member of Saad Hariri's entourage told French journalist Georges Malbrunot that Siddiq was probably used to convey information "gathered elsewhere". Malbrunot also reported that the CIA as well as the French intelligence services had come to the conclusion that Siddiq was unreliable ("l'homme est un affabulateur").

Le clan Hariri aurait manipulé un témoin clé de l'enquête
(Le Figaro, mercredi 30 novembre 2005, p. 3, quoted here)

Pour l'équipe Hariri, même douteux, l'homme est utile. « On s'en est probablement servi pour lui faire endosser des informations recueillies par ailleurs », reconnaît un membre de l'entourage de Saad Hariri. En échange vraisemblablement d'une importante somme d'argent, Sadiq accepte de recycler des renseignements qui, espère-t-on, pourraient faire avancer l'enquête.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Silent Treatment

Harvard to remove official seal from anti-AIPAC 'working paper'

Harvard University has decided to remove its logo from a study that denounces the pro-Israel lobby's impact on American foreign policy, in order to distance itself from the study's conclusions.

The university also appended a more strongly worded disclaimer to the study, stating that it reflects the views of its authors only. The former disclaimer said merely that the study "does not necessarily" reflect the university's views.

The controversial study, published this week, was authored by Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. It charged that American foreign policy has been subordinated to Israeli interests and accused the pro-Israel lobby of responsibility for America's invasion of Iraq.

The study's many critics claim that its academic quality is poor, and that it is essentially a political polemic rather than genuine academic research. Well-known researchers such as Marvin Kalb, also of Harvard's Kennedy School, said this week that the study fails to meet minimal academic standards.

Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, in an interview with Haaretz this week, termed the study itself a form of anti-Semitism and said that it deserved the American public's contempt.

According to the New York Sun, Robert Belfer - who gave the Kennedy School $7.5 million in 1997 in order, among other things, to endow the chair that Walt now occupies - called the university and asked that Walt be forbidden to use his title in publicity for the study.

Israeli officials have been concerned over the study, saying it is liable to be used to delegitimize Israel among the American intelligentsia. As of yesterday, however, it did not seem to have won much support among academics specializing in American foreign policy. According to one such academic, who asked to remain anonymous, "the study obviously contains many correct facts, but their presentation is skewed and the conclusions [the authors] derive from them are unfit for publication. For instance, it completely ignores the enormous influence of the Arab oil lobby on American policy, and presents a one-sided and utterly politically biased picture of the world."

The Forward's Ori Nir explains that the Scholars' Attack on Pro-Israel Lobby Met With Silence (March 24, 2006). He writes:

WASHINGTON — In the face of one of the harshest reports on the pro-Israel lobby to emerge from academia, Jewish organizations are holding fire in order to avoid generating publicity for their critics.

Officials at Jewish organizations are furious over "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Despite their anger, Jewish organizations are avoiding a frontal debate with the two scholars, while at the same time seeking indirect ways to rebut and discredit the scholars' arguments. Officials with pro-Israel organizations say that given the limited public attention generated by the new study — as of Tuesday most major print outlets had ignored it — they prefer not to draw attention to the paper by taking issue with it head on. As of Wednesday morning, none of the largest Jewish organizations had issued a press release on the report.

"The key here is to not do what they probably want, which is to have this become a battle between us and them, or for them to say that they are being silenced," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "It's much better to let others respond."

Pro-Israel activists were planning a briefing for congressional staffers to be held Thursday. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering releasing a letter in response to the new paper, congressional staffers said.
Actually, there has been an op-ed about the article in the Wall Street Journal. War in Context has this quote: "an op-ed appearing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (Israel Lobby by Ruth Wisse). She writes:" would be a mistake to treat this article on the "Israel Lobby" as an attack on Israel alone, or on its Jewish defenders, or on the organizations and individuals it singles out for condemnation. Its true target is the American public, which now supports Israel with higher levels of confidence than ever before. When the authors imply that the bipartisan support of Israel in Congress is a result of Jewish influence, they function as classic conspiracy theorists who attribute decisions to nefarious alliances rather than to the choices of a democratic electorate. Their contempt for fellow citizens dictates their claims of a gullible and stupid America. Their insistence that American support for Israel is bought and paid for by the Lobby heaps scorn on American judgment and values.
Philip Weiss, writing in the Nation about how the play "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," composed from the journal entries and e-mails of the 23-year-old from Washington State who was crushed to death in Gaza three years ago under a bulldozer operated by the Israeli army, has not been able to show in New York. The article's title is "Too Hot for New York." This is interesting in light of the flap over the Lobby article by Walt and Mearsheimer.

"The Israeli Lobby," discussed in Haaretz

Sasa at Syria News Wire asks: "Has Khaddam lost his mind - Khaddam accuses Palestinian MP of spying for Israel." Khaddam is accusing Israeli MP, Azme Bashara of having spied on Syria.

Sami Moubayed explains why the appointment of Najah al-Attar as Syria's first woman Vice President, may or may not be important. She is from a notable, non-Bathist family. Her brother, Issam al-Attar, now exiled in Europe, was the leader of the Muslim Brothers. Sami provides a number of interesting statistics about the advancement of women in various sectors of the Syrian work force.

Haaretz must be congratulated. Akiva Eldar proves that the Israeli press is bolder than the US press. In an article entitled, "A 'lite' plan for the enlightened voter" of (21/03/2006), Eldar includes the following section about "the Lobby in the crosshairs," which addresses the hard hitting and controversial article entitled, "The Israel Lobby" by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard in the "London Review of Books." The article has yet to be discussed in the US press.

Lobby in the crosshairs

The combination of an initiative aimed against Hamas - a party that is officially defined as a "terror organization" - and a Congressional election year should have insured that for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), passing a law limiting the aid to the Hamas government and associated bodies would be as easy as cutting through butter with a knife. And now, to the great surprise of the heads of the strongest pro-Israel lobby in Washington, nearly two months after they planted the proposal for the law with their obedient servants in both the House and the Senate, and two weeks after they sent out 2,000 activists to assault Capitol Hill, the proposal is still stuck deep in the pipeline.

Thus far about 150 members the House of Representatives have signed the proposal, about 70 short of the required number. On the weekend, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that AIPAC had distributed to its activists a panicked bulletin warning them that if the missing votes are not recruited by next Wednesday, the initiative will be lost.

An aide to a member of Congress told the Jewish weekly Forward that apparently the penny has finally dropped for the elected representatives of the American public. They have started to realize that the constant harassment of Arabs is liable to damage American interests in the Middle East, especially in Iraq.

It is possible that he, like many of his colleagues in the power centers of Washington, has read a new study on the pro-Israel lobby published by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Two professors, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard, dared to put in writing things that are often heard in closed rooms now that the U.S. has sunk into the Iraqi swamp. The group of neo-conservatives that pushed President George W. Bush into this swamp has become the punching bag of U.S. academia and media, and it was only a question of time before it became Israel's turn to pay the price of the battle waged by Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and their colleagues in the pro-Israel lobby and its allies on the Christian right.

The start of the trial of the two AIPAC men accused of handing secret information over to Israel looks like the perfect timing for the publication of one of the most critical documents ever written at a first-rank academic institution about U.S. policy toward Israel (the main points of the article appear on The London Review of Books' Web site). The authors argue that the American support for Israel was one of the main reasons for the Al-Qaida terror attacks on September 11, 2001.

"There is no question," they write, "that many Al-Qaida leaders, including Bin Laden, are motivated by Israel's presence in Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinians."

They note that American public opinion polls and research institutes show that the one-sided policy toward Israel is attracting fire against the United States on the Arab street and helping fanatics like Bin Laden to recruit activists. The researchers argue that Israel is detrimentally dragging the United States into a struggle against Iran. Moreover, they state that the nuclear weaponry in Israel's hands is one of the reasons that Iran, like other countries in the region, also wants to equip itself with a bomb. In their opinion, the American threat to depose the governments of those states increases nuclear appetites.

The two do not refrain from mentioning that Israel consistently bites the American hand that feeds it - usually, contrary to U.S. interests. With its one hand, Israel is establishing settlements, contrary to the wishes of the Untied States, and with the other it is smiting the Palestinians and tearing up American peace plans one after the other.

Once the pictures of American soldiers dying in Baghdad and of hungry Palestinian children in Gaza schools obliterate the pictures of the Israeli children killed in buses in Jerusalem and the Qassams in Sderot, the new government in Israel may well discover a different America.
Mearsheimer and Walt's article begins:
For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Did the Anti-US demonstration Really turn Anti-Regime? A Second Witness

A second observer of the demonstration outside of the Communist Party in Damascus gives us a different point of view of what happened. Anyone who took interest in the story about how a "Anti-US demonstration became anti-regime" should read it.

Khaled Yacoub Oweis has a good analysis article published by Reuters called, "Syria confident of surviving U.S. pressure" (21 Mar 2006). It is worth a read. His central argument is that the Iraq disaster has blown new life into and served to relegitimized the Asad regime in Syria. This is an observation that has been made on Syria Comment for some time. From all accounts the Asad regime is likely to be around for some time to come. As one foreign diplomat is quoted as saying:

"The United States has no appetite for military action against Syria. There is no chance of popular revolt and a coup is unlikely, although the Syrians are not off the hook completely over the Hariri killing," one diplomat said.
Hugh Macleod who lives in Damascus and is editor of Syria Today has a good article on the Syrian oppoition. SYRIA: Domestic opposition gaining strength, but still facing pressures

“Khaddam preparing a ‘political [surprise]’ Thanks to

In its March 22 edition, Al Rai Al Aam, an independent daily reported that: “A source in the Syrian opposition told Al Rai Al Aam yesterday in Paris, that the former Syrian vice-president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, has prepared a ‘political bomb’ that will be launched soon, following his successful meeting with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood abroad, Ali Sadreddine Al Bayanouni. The source that is very close to Khaddam, confirmed that delegations from the opposition in the US and Germany, have visited Paris in the last few days and met with Khaddam who had just returned from Brussels, where he met with Al Bayanouni. The two have established the ‘National Salvation Front’, a name that was suggested by Khaddam himself, ‘in reference to the similar front that was established in Lebanon during the first years of the civil war’ and that Khaddam himself orchestrated…

“In a statement sent by ‘Rally for Syria’ to the offices of Al Rai Al Aam in Paris, Fahed Al Agha Al Masri, the general coordinator of the Rally stated that: ‘We support the call of MP Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party, for a meeting between the forces of the national Syrian and Lebanese opposition. These meetings are the fundamental pillars of reform and help restore the Lebanese-Syrian relations that were undermined by the terrorist and oppressive regime in Damascus. The Rally for Syria will try to hold the first meeting between the Syrian and the Lebanese opposition forces at the end of next month…’

“Lately, Khaddam had increased his calls with Lebanese officials, amongst which [include] MP Saad Al Hariri and Mrs. Nazik Al Hariri, and had received a while ago, MP Akram Shehayeb who was delegated by Jumblatt. While Khaddam avoided giving further details regarding the upcoming political initiative, that is referred to by those who are close to him as ‘the bomb’, sources in the opposition indicated that calls have been made between Khaddam… and many personalities inside and outside [of Syria], to agree on forming a government in exile.

“Even though many sources that are close to Khaddam and Al Bayanouni have denied the fact that contacts have been made with the US, France or Western countries that are concerned with the Syrian-Lebanese dossier, sources in the opposition have pointed out the necessity of ‘using the international atmosphere’ that wishes to change the regime, to push the Syrian forces forward. This indirectly means that they are willing to accept American and European help… In the meantime, Paris wished that Khaddam would stop making statements on French territories…

“On the other hand, Khaddam is telling his visitors, that his testimony before the International Investigation Commission has dotted the i’s, and that the Syrian regime is still undergoing a serious and tormented situation despite its attempts to show otherwise. He also indicated that neither the US nor France have changed their opinions about it, assured that many Syrian political and military figures will soon express their opposition to the regime and [he] stressed that is was necessary to dismiss the idea of overthrowing the regime through a military coup…” - Newspaper - Middle East, Middle East

"Women's rights activists face resistance"

The nationality law is problem that everyone in Syria seems to recognize needs to be fixed, as the following article suggests. Being married to a Syrian woman, I have run into many problems trying to get my son and even my marriage registered in Syria. Everyone told me that there is a law before parliament that would amend the law to allow women to confer nationality on their children, but it has gone nowhere. The Kurdish nationality law must be settled first, some say. This is because many of the nationless Kurds in Syria would gain Syrian citizenship if their Arab mothers could grant them nationality. No doubt, security worries about giving citizenship to people like my son, who would be considered undtrustworthy citizens. They would definately be hard to control.

SYRIA: Women's rights activists face resistance
21 Mar 2006 11:01:43 GMT
Source: IRIN

DAMASCUS, 21 March (IRIN) - When Sabah's husband left her in Syria and returned to his native Saudi Arabia, he didn't just leave his teenage daughter without a father. He also left her without a nationality.

"The problem in Syria is that a law that is more than 50 years old prevents a Syrian woman from passing her nationality on to her children, while the man can do so directly," said the 46-year-old mother, whose Saudi husband divorced her 12 years ago.

"It affects the children a lot. They are born here and they study here but once they graduate from the university they start to face difficulties," she said. "Only Syrians have the right to work in the government. Non-Syrians have to find a job in the private sector."

In a country where statistics show one in five young people struggling to find work, that loss of potential employment is significant.

Worse still, say activists, efforts to reform discriminatory Syrian laws are met with obstruction from a rising conservative clerical establishment.

Women's rights activists were recently verbally attacked by clerics during Friday prayers at several mosques across Damascus after they distributed questionnaires canvassing public opinion on changing laws that they say unnecessarily restrict the rights of Syria's Muslim women.

"They accused us of being atheists, betrayers, infiltrators and of violating religious rules," said Nada al-Ali, a women's rights activist.

Women in Syria, according to activists, are by no means the most restricted in the Arab world. They enjoy relatively high rates of employment, political involvement and access to higher education. Fifteen percent of Syria's employers are female, while 12 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women.

Yet they continue to face discrimination in the personal sphere, particularly in matters relating to marriage and divorce.

Foremost among these is the personal status law which governs not only nationality, but also child custody after divorce and polygamy, and which, conservative clerics claim, is founded on Islamic law, or shari'a.

Abdelaziz al-Khatib, a conservative cleric at the al-Darwisheya mosque in central Damascus who led the verbal attacks against the women's rights activists, said the activists were "imitating the West" in their demands for reform. As the personal status law came from Islamic law it could not be debated because "it came from the God who created all of us", he said.

"We called for the banning of the groups that were asking for changes to the law," added al-Khatib.

The public questioning of both the law and the status quo in a country that has been controlled by what human rights groups say is a security-orientated, authoritarian ruling party for over four decades is a rare occurrence.

Syria is officially a secular state but has witnessed an Islamic revival over the past few years, with an increasing number of women wearing Islamic headscarves to cover their hair as a sign of religious piety.

"The clerics said we have no right to ask people questions that relate to the Quran," said Nada al-Ali, whose activist group collected 15,000 signatures over the past few years from both men and women seeking to lobby the government to introduce more equal custody rights for divorcees.

In response, the government reformed the personal status law in 2003 to allow divorced mothers four years' extra custody of their children, up to the age of 15 for girls and 13 for boys, before the right automatically passes to a father. "The extended custody was not enough and we were not very satisfied with it," noted al-Ali.

Under Syrian law a husband can divorce his wife simply by telling her, "you are divorced," three times, while women seeking separation must navigate a multitude of legal hurdles that usually take two years to complete.

Syria's personal status law, which is administered by Islamic courts, was first issued in 1953 and reformed by the People's Assembly – the country's legislature which is dominated by the ruling Ba'ath party - in 1975 and again in 2003.

In 2003, Syria ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, with a number of reservations. These preclude the state from being legally obliged to observe the equal rights of women in relation to provisions that are said to conflict with Islamic law, including: the granting of a woman's nationality to her children; freedom of movement and of residence; equal rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution with regard to guardianship; and the right to choose a family name.

Activists argue that comprehensive reforms of both the personal status law and the criminal justice system law are essential to safeguard women's rights.

Though such cases are greatly underreported, Da'ad Mousa, a prominent Damascus lawyer and women's rights advocate, said that more than 100 cases of so-called "honour killings" were reported in Syrian newspapers between 2000 and 2003. The majority of the men involved, who killed a female relative suspected of an illicit sexual affair in the belief that the liaison tarnished the family's "honour", went unpunished.

In September 2005, a young Druze bride was killed by her brother because she had married a man from another religion. Her death triggered a public outcry, including a campaign entitled "Stop Honour Killings," which lobbied Syria's parliament and justice ministry to change the criminal law code.

"Honour crimes contradict Islam," noted Mohammad Habash, a leading liberal MP and head of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus. Yet efforts to see reform of Islamic laws meet with stern resistance, he added.

"We did not expect the government's attitude to be so negative. There must be a clear decision about whether we are with extremism or with enlightenment," he noted.

Badr Eddine Hassoun, Syria's Grand Mufti, who is appointed by the Syrian president, added: "There are some Islamic leaders in Syria who refuse dialogue. But they are the ones swimming against the tide."

Despite the sporadic campaigns and talk of legal reforms, Sabah, whose daughter is now 22-years-old, says little is changing. "In 2004, we sent a petition to the parliament asking them to change the law, so that a mother could pass on her nationality to her child," she said. "But…the government delayed it for what they said were 'political reasons'."

"It is really sad. I raised my daughter alone and did everything to try and make her happy," she added.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Authorities Forbid Syrians from Meeting US Officials or US-Based Opposition

Radio Sawa is reporting that Syrian authorities have banned meetings by unauthorized Syrians with American officials. This is an attempt to stop the growing coordination between the opposition inside Syria with the exile groups as well as to hinder their growing relationships with US offialdom. This news comes from Ammar al-Qaroubi, the spokesman of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, who was recently detained for several days after his return from Paris, where he participated in the meeting organized by the Aspen Institute.

وجهت السلطات السورية رسائل إلى كافة نشطاء حقوق الانسان والمعارضين السوريين مفادها أن الاتصال بالولايات المتحدة يعد خطاً أحمر.
أعلن ذلك عمّار القربي المتحدث باسم المنظمة العربية لحقوق الانسان في سوريا عقب إطلاق السلطات السورية سراحه الاربعاء الماضي بعد مشاركته في إجتماعين للمعارضة السورية في واشنطن وباريس:

Also read Amarji on the March 9 and 10 meeting of Ghadry and Somer al-Asad, Rifaat's son. He writes:

Another meeting was taking place organized by the Aspen Institute and attended by other, if not downright rival, opposition figures [to Khaddam], including Farid Ghadri, Sumer al-Assad (son of the infamous Rifa’at al-Assad – the perennial contender to the presidential throne and uncle of the current President) and a number of internal opposition figures, who seemed to have been dismayed by the presence of Sumer al-Assad and forced his withdrawal from the meeting. The internal opposition figures seem to have been angered by the lack of transparency by the organizers of the meeting who refused to divulge beforehand the names of the external opposition figures who will be attending.
The RPS describes the Aspen meeting as follows:
RPS participated in an event in Paris on March 9 and 10 hosted by Aspen institute in which Aspen invited Obeida Nahas, a Muslim Brotherhood member to participate and express his opinion. During the two day meeting, not one word was uttered by Nahas as to the meeting in Brussels a week later or to invite any other of the participants to enlarge the circle as if the intent was to exclude rather than include. For a Muslim Brotherhood follower to exclude other people, when he was included amongst many others in other meetings, is a very dangerous matter. It shows exactly why the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be trusted. It is not what you say, it is what you do.

"Was Syria right to hail Hamas' victory?" by Ibrahim Hamidi

Ibrahim Hamidi has written an interesting think piece in which he imagines what the world will be like for Damascus now that "Syria is surrounded by Islamic regimes or groups that have used elections to gain power."

Was Syria right to hail Hamas' victory?

By Ibrahim Hamidi
Commentary by
Monday, March 20, 2006

Syria might be heralding it as a victory, but Hamas' success in the recent Palestinian legislative elections holds out a number of long-term challenges to the Baath regime with regards to Syrian domestic politics. The Syrian regime was emboldened by the Hamas victory for several reasons. Hamas is a longtime ally and a major regional "political card" for Syria that it has repeatedly refused to surrender in the face of American pressure. When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Syria in May 2003, a key demand he presented to President Bashar Assad was expulsion of the leaders of the 10 Damascus-based Palestinian organizations, particularly Khaled Meshaal, chairman of Hamas' Politburo.

In the run-up to that meeting, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa (recently named vice-president) met with Palestinian officials. While they "agreed" to voluntarily close their official offices in Damascus, the Syrian regime allowed "some refugees playing a political and informational role" to remain. This helped the regime keep all its options open, since supporting the Palestinian cause is a pillar of its legitimacy.

As the United States faced growing difficulties in Iraq in late 2005, Damascus went on the offensive to deflect American pressures following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This process began in September, when Assad received the leaders of the Damascus-based Palestinian groups at the presidential palace. Then, last January 17, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met the same leaders on the margins of talks he held in Damascus with Assad. Central to those discussions was the formation of an alliance between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Hamas' upset win in the Palestinian elections on January 26 transformed the party from what had been described a "terrorist organization harbored by Damascus" to a legitimate movement.

In a news conference in Damascus on January 28, Meshaal declared his party's victory as the first step toward "dismantling the wall of isolation" surrounding Syria. Iran, meanwhile, pledged to finance the Palestinian Authority (PA) as soon as Hamas formed a government. Syria has also promised to assist the PA, and the issue will be debated at the upcoming Arab League summit in Khartoum, Sudan.

So, as the West focuses on how to deal with a Hamas-controlled government and Parliament, as well as a nuclear Iran, the fate of Syria seems to have moved down the international agenda. While it is too early to tell, there is considerable speculation that the Bush administration, as well as a number of European and Arab countries, are now beginning to understand that increased external pressure seems to be strengthening Islamist hard-liners throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The Syrian line to Western envoys is that Islamists will win free elections in the Middle East and that current U.S. policy only enhances extremist forces, while Israeli policies weaken PA President Mahmoud Abbas. This prediction proved correct in Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Egypt and the Palestinian territories. The Syrian leadership believes that the Hamas victory will cause Washington to reassess its "democracy agenda" vis-a-vis Syria, where deep Islamic currents flow under a fragile secular crust.

However, all these developments pose a number of long-term challenges for the Syrian regime. First, Hamas' victory has indeed confused the Bush administration, whether in its dealings with the PA or with regard to its broader democratic ambitions in the region. However, Washington has not shown any intention of revising its methods. Some in the administration do not object to Islamists coming to power through democratic processes. There is a belief that one way to "subdue" Islamist parties is to allow them to come to power, which may lead to the failure of their programs and will force them to moderate their hard-line policies in the long run.
Many questions remain about Hamas' future as a ruling party. It will face difficult choices that are likely to lead to stalemate. To be in power while simultaneously sticking to the political platform it developed as a militant movement will mean disagreement with Abbas, international isolation and, very likely, a reduction in financial resources. This will affect Hamas' capacity to finance civil institutions, schools and the families of dead militants. The movement, by accepting the PA platform and dealing with Palestinian affairs in a pragmatic way, would show a willingness to become a political party. This would alter its relationship with Syria and Iran

The experience of the Iraqi parties harbored by Damascus before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is still fresh in Syrian minds. As soon as they came to power in Baghdad, they turned a cold shoulder to Syria and forgot their onetime "strategic alliance" with it. Of course, there are differences between the Israeli occupation and that of the coalition forces in Iraq, but the question remains, Will Hamas do the same thing?

Syria is now surrounded by Islamic regimes or groups that have used elections to gain power. To the north, Turkey's Justice and Development Party rules democratically on the basis of a moderate Islamic platform endorsing liberal economic policy. To the east, the Shiite coalition in Iraq has come to power through elections supported by American and British forces fighting Sunni groups. Further east, Iran is ruled by Islamists who came to power during the 1979 revolution. To the west, in Lebanon, Hizbullah has proven its legitimacy in elections, and by fighting Israel and providing social programs for its followers. To the south, in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has a parliamentary majority. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood scored well in parliamentary elections last year - an experience Jordan may replicate in elections tentatively scheduled for next year.

Syria, which is ruled by secular socialist and nationalist party, therefore looks increasingly isolated in an "Islamized" environment. This has significant implications for Syria's political future, especially in light of the country's formidable economic problems. The Hamas victory will inspire Syrians to become more involved in Islamic political movements. The recent demonstrations against the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad showed what an Islamic genie might look like if it were to get out of its

bottle. And lest we forget, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Syrian branch is banned. Hamas' victory could tempt Palestinians in Syria (with a refugee population of some 450,000) to join Islamist groups, violating the gentlemen's agreement with the Syrian regime that Palestinian Islamists not induct new members on Syrian territory.

Finally, one of the reasons behind Hamas' victory was strong anti-establishment sentiment, due to rampant corruption in the PA. The free elections allowed people to say no to the ruling party and yes to change.

While Fatah has been in power for around a decade, Syria's Baath has been in power for 43 years. Next year, Syria is scheduled to hold municipal and parliamentary elections. How will voters respond to slogans calling for combating corruption and cutting the public bureaucracy? How will Islamic forces that have maintained civil and domestic social support networks fare? For the Syrian regime, Hamas' success may be a double-edged sword.

Ibrahim Hamidi is a journalist living in Damascus and an expert on Syrian affairs. He wrote this article for THE DAILY STAR .

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Damascus Declaration Leaders Confused by MB - Khaddam Front

Hassan Abdal Azim, a founding member of and spokesperson for the Damascus Declaration, the umbrella organization for the internal Syrian opposition, has distanced his organization from the new Khaddam-Bayanouni alliance which was formed in Brussels a few days ago. They announced the formation of a transitional government.

Azim said the internal opposition knew nothing of the new Front. It had taken them by total surprise, he says. This article in al-Ra'i, or as it transliterates its name, Arraee, quotes Azim to this effect. He says the internal opposition should lead, not follow the external opposition.

نفى حسن عبد العظيم الناطق الرسمي باسم التجمع الديمقراطي المعارض في سورية امس –أحد أعمدة إعلان دمشق- وجود أي تنسيق بين قوى "إعلان دمشق" الذي يضم معارضي الداخل ومؤتمر المعارضة السورية الذي عقد أمس الاول في بروكسل مشيرا إلى أن المؤتمر لم يحظ بموافقة المعارضة في الداخل.

وقال عبد العظيم في اتصال مع وكالة الانباء الالمانية إن المؤتمر عقد "خارج إعلان دمشق تماما لأنه لم يطرح على إعلان دمشق أي موضوع من هذا القبيل ولم يتم أي تشاور أو اتصال مع هيئة إعلان دمشق أو اللجنة الموقتة لإعلان دمشق".

But not all Damascus Declaration leaders are so put out by the new alliance.

The "Syrian Report" in a recent interview with Samir Nashar, head of Syria’s Liberal Party, member of the transitional council of the Damascus Declaration, and leading business and figure in Aleppo, asks him directly about the new front as follows:

Why did the Damascus Declaration not denounce the meeting between Abdel Halim Khaddam and Ali Bayanouni?
On February 18 the Damascus Declaration said it wanted to denounce the meeting between Khaddam and Bayanouni but I and other figures played a role in stopping this statement. Instead we just stood back from the meeting. I see Khaddam meeting Bayanouni as a political necessity to build a political framework that is an alternative to the regime. If the regime collapses what is the alternative? Change in Syria should be by stages, to reduce the damage.

Anti-US Demonstration Turns Anti-Regime

This report of a demonstration in down town Damascus was sent to me by a friend, who didn't want his name used. He included good photos, but I cannot upload them, alas.

A Glimpse Beneath the Surface:
An Anti-US Gathering Displays an Anti-Regime Flavor

A peaceful anti-American protest organized by the Syrian Communist Party turned messy on Saturday, February 18, as the crowd turned against government forces and shouted against the Bath Party. Some 200 day laborers and farmers from the city as well as the country’s interior, school-aged children, and even Muslim women gathered at 3:00 PM in front of the Communist headquarters near the upscale Shahbandar Square neighborhood in central Damascus, repeating slogans aimed at the US occupation of Iraq and displaying signs in support of the “glorious” Iraqi insurgency. A heavy uniformed police and plainclothes secret police presence watched quietly and approvingly along the sidelines for some two hours of protesting.

At 5:00, the situation changed abruptly with the lightning quick arrest of a small group of participants, who were shoved into the back of the Syrian intelligence forces' trademark white Peugeots. Immediately, some older women (perhaps relatives of the arrested) began weeping and confronted the uniformed policemen, shouting at them. Minutes later, more Peugeots rushed onto the scene as plainclothes men with machine guns rushed out to try and disperse the angry crowd. Some time between the two waves of car arrivals, police fired a round into the air and some of the assembled screamed in shock.

The situation quickly escalated as two separate groups of young- and middle-aged men and women began fist-fighting with policemen. Perhaps most shockingly for those accustomed to the carefully-choreographed nature of political protest in Damascus, the crowd then began jumping and shouting in unison for 10 minutes until they were physically stopped: “It’s our party [the Communists]! It’s our party! We want jobs! We dare you to stop us!” Within moments, neighborhood onlookers and protest participants were text messaging others on their cellular phones; nervous plainclothes agents confiscated some phones and took this narrator's digital camera memory card.

By 5:20 the city block was sealed off by dozens of red transit police cars and even more police and intelligence officers who would not let anybody in or out of the neighborhood. By coincidence or design, electricity for the block went off for a half an hour henceforth. Until approximately 10:00 that evening there remained scores of heavily armed plainclothes forces crawling around the residential neighborhood – behind bushes, in apartment complex stairwells, and in the middle of the street. By 10:30 things were back to normal and the only sign that a struggle had occurred was a solitary damaged storefront.

The incident sheds light on the regime’s ability to rapidly capture key “troublemakers,” calm the scene (although perhaps with mixed success on this occasion), and, most importantly, contain the situation from spreading. People as close as a block away would not have been able to know what occurred – all they would have been able to see was a cordon of police vehicles, not an uncommon sight in the city. The incident will never be reported in the media outlets from which ordinary Syrians receive their news. The stealth of the government's response to a small-scale expression of outrage at arbitrary arrests will likely have a severe chilling effect on the word-of-mouth that might normally help spread news of such an occurrence.

Gatherings with an anti-regime flavor are not unheard of in the interior regions of the country, especially the restive, Kurdish-dominated northeast, and the Iraqi-leaning eastern border, where most of the Syrian contribution to the Iraqi insurgency are reputed to have hailed from. Such overt acts of resistance in the face of regime forces are far rarer in the ritzy heart of the capital. The only political activity the neighborhood had witnessed in the past six months was a carefully-managed anti-US/UN rally in October and the recent burning of the Danish embassy not far away. The Communist Party, originally founded by a Kurd, is one of a handful of parties that are allowed to exist in a system that is constitutionally-dominated by the Ba’th Party. Because it draws most of its support from the workers and farmers, the presence of dozens of covered Muslim women active in the crowd was surprising.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Ghadry's RPS Critical of New Opposition Front

Farid Ghadry's Reform Party of Syria is critical of the new opposition front that was formed in Brussels between the Muslim Brother leader Sadraddin al-Bayanouni and ex-vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam. He writes that many secular leaders and Islamists are unhappy with the new alliance.

Kaddam, Muslim Brotherhood Meet in Brussels

Kaddam is distributing positions in his government-in-exile after he has chosen himself its leader.

Washington DC, March 18, 2006/RPS/ -- Seventeen men led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Kaddam, the ex-vice president of Syria and a staunch Ba'athist, met in Brussels in the last two days to form a new "Front for Rescue" for Syria and a government-in-exile. Unlike what the news reported, the meeting was composed of 17 men, no women, and no minority representation.

Kaddam who dissented from the Assad regime for losing his job, served as a vice president under the rule of Hafez al-Assad and witnessed during his tenure some of the most outrageous atrocities against the Syrian people. While this was happening, Kaddam enjoyed the protection of the regime and the Syrian people consider him an active participant in their oppression and economic misery. Even Riad al-Turk, a seasoned dissident, issued a press release condemning the alliance with Kaddam as "a cause for more problems to the opposition than its worth".

The Muslim Brotherhood was represented by Sadr Eddine al-Bayanouni who, because of his association with Kaddam, lost important following in the last few months to new elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. The split has brought forth a new leadership in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, which is in contact with the other opposition groups not allied with Kaddam.

Kaddam, who has talked about helping the Syrian opposition ever since his dissention, is now attempting to lead it. Some in the Syrian opposition believe that it is an insult against the Syrian people if some in the Syrian opposition cannot find a leader whose past is not mired in corruption, tyranny, and oppression. The government-in-exile he is proposing is a distribution system of positions that Kaddam and Bayanouni, in the ultimate expression of democracy, are exploiting. Individuals are being contacted by Kaddam directly and "given" government positions.
Kaddam's Dictatorial Leniencies

Washington DC, March 18, 2006/RPS Opinion/ -- The Syrian opposition awoke one day to discover that there was a meeting in Brussels between Kaddam and Bayanouni of the Muslim Brotherhood with another 15 unknown dissidents. The purpose of the meeting is to draw a new document called “Syrian Front to Terminate the Regime” and to set-up a new government-in-exile chosen by those meeting.

The effect of the meeting on the rest of us varied from disbelief that after all the talk about democracy dissidents actually would vote themselves as the leaders of a government-in-exile to repugnance that Kaddam, a well known accommodator of the oppressive regime of Hafez al-Assad, is actually taking an active role in leading that opposition instead of just simply helping the opposition as he has claimed publicly. The condemnation from many other dissidents was swift and effective so much so that Bayanouni had to issue another press release justifying his actions and defending Kaddam’s past (Wrong move Bayanouni). The word on the street is that scores of Muslim Brotherhood followers are very upset over this unholy alliance with Kaddam and are threatening to join other movements or to split altogether from Bayanouni to form their own Muslim Brotherhood. That, in a way, explains Bayanouni’s second press release.

RPS participated in an event in Paris on March 9 and 10 hosted by Aspen institute in which Aspen invited Obeida Nahas, a Muslim Brotherhood member to participate and express his opinion. During the two day meeting, not one word was uttered by Nahas as to the meeting in Brussels a week later or to invite any other of the participants to enlarge the circle as if the intent was to exclude rather than include. For a Muslim Brotherhood follower to exclude other people, when he was included amongst many others in other meetings, is a very dangerous matter. It shows exactly why the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be trusted. It is not what you say, it is what you do.

So now instead of uniting the opposition, the meeting in Brussels had the exact opposite effect. Riad al-Turk came out swinging and so did many other dissidents who felt that this unity and the means by which it happened (total darkness, no transparency, and acts that remind us of the authoritarian rule of Assad) will leave an indelible feeling amongst them. What an insult to the Syrian people to let Kaddam whose hands are mired in criminal acts and corruption lead the Syrian opposition. That is why the Syrian street is angry. Also, that is why the Syrian government is silent because it is ecstatic about the Kaddam-Bayanouni faux-pas.

The international community, led by the United States and in particular Karen Hughes, one of President Bush long time confidant and close friends, has embarked on a new public diplomacy campaign aimed at assuring the Arab masses that the United States is on their side. Part of that campaign is to face up to the past mistakes committed by US policy makers when it comes to turning a blind eye to oppressive Arab regimes. It is an impossibility for the United States to stand by or support people like Kaddam and had Bayanouni bothered to inquire, he would have never entered into this holly alliance with him. Bayanouni simply chewed too much this time and along the way not only offended his people but also created an environment in which the US finds itself unable to support any moderate Islamic movement tied to the old regime hacks. Bayanouni will find this out the hard way.

As far as Kaddam is concerned, the Syrian people simply hate him. He was the face of the regime without the regime’s goodness if any existed. Many Sunni Muslims associate him with their miseries for standing by while they suffered at the hands of the Assad iron rule. Many in the dissident community view his sudden appearance as a vendetta against Baschar al-Assad for sidelining him and new nations can never be built on the personal vindictiveness of old regime rulers. As far as everyone is concerned in the Syrian opposition, Kaddam has committed suicide in Brussels.

What amazes many in our community is the handling of the Brussels event. While on the surface, the words look rational, the actions are far from it. Who in their own mind would meet with another 16 other men to form a government-in-exile and choose himself as its leader? I know of three people who received phone calls from Kaddam offering them ministerial positions in his new dictatorial government. I have heard that Kaddam was not a bright fellow (That is why Assad trusted him for thirty years as vice-president. He was more of a window dressing than a real VP) but this act really makes him the champion of something else I do not dare say.

The Syrian opposition is in disarray today because we are ill-equipped to unite. The funding is miniscule, the differences of opinion create unbelievable animosities, and the personalities are weak. We do not have a Mandella or a man of such stature to move not only the Syrian street but also persuade the international community to change the Assad regime. In short, we are not mature enough to rise above it all.

However, there is a saying that goes “Even diminutive men when given important responsibilities do rise to the occasion”. The solution lies in the responsibility part and that is why the United States is so very important to provide that responsibility. How? It is very simple. Secretary Rice can invite the 10 most important Syrian leaders to the US State Department for consultation. She then should, after a small pep talk, close the door behind her and ask no one to leave the room before they agree to unite. This will have two very positive effects: 1) This will mean that the US is serious about regime change in Syria and 2) The unity of the Syrian opposition will produce immediate results in the Syrian street. Before this happens, our squabbles and future Kaddams will continue to hamper any of our effectiveness.

Asad Interview on Sky News: Iraq, Reform, Security

Talks On Assissination Plot: Assad interviewed by Sky News in Aleppo. Full 15 minute Video Assad Interview

Updated: 09:14, Friday March 17, 2006
More on This Story:

Syria's President Bashar al Assad has assured Sky News he will co-operate with the UN's investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr Hariri died in a bomb blast in Beirut a year ago, and many have blamed Damascus and the Syrian president.

But, in an exclusive interview with Sky's James Rubin, Mr Assad said the UN team would be visiting Syria soon.

He said: "We will support any investigation surrounding this crime. "

The president said he would meet the president and vice president of the UN team in April, when they could "ask him anything".

UN investigators have said this week they were closer to a detailed understanding of how the assassination plot was carried out.

Mr Assad also told Sky his country was doing everything in its power to stop insurgents crossing its borders into Iraq.

He said: "We do what we can for ourselves to control the borders, not for them but for us.

"The insurgents who kill civilians, they harm Syria."

Mr Assad said he believed the occupying forces should leave Iraq as soon as possible.

"We support the political process in Iraq, it is very important for stability regardless of the constitution, for them to have independence."

Regarding reform in Syria he insisted the country was focusing on security and economic measures before politics.

He insisted there was freedom of speech in the country for citizens to criticise the government, but not to 'harm' the country.

More on This Story:
Video Assad Interview

Abizaid: "Syrians have moved against the foreign fighters"

General John Abizaid, chief of US Control Command in the Middle East, has said: "We know that the Syrians have moved against the foreign fighters. " Why? Because of Syrian self interest: "because the foreign fighters represent a threat to Syria." Syria does not want continued instability in Iraq. Fighting there has already led to the formation of Jihadist cells in Syria and the training of a new generation of Syrians in military tactics and command. Of course, Syria has been eager to have the Americans withdraw from Iraq and dragged its feet on the border issue. But for the last year, Washington has been talking about an exit strategy, forcing Syria to plan for the day after. Syria has begun thinking about a post-American Iraq and restoring stability to the neighborhood.

Abizaid's pro-Syrian statement is recognition of this fact. Now that Khalilzade is about to open negotiations with Iran, there seems to be a large-scale reassessment of strategy going on in the military. This military reassessment to draw in Iraq's neighbors, it would appear, is in conflict with thinking in the White House. Rumsfeld recently slammed both Iran and Syria for aiding the insurgency. Abizaid has contradicted him. The new campaign to raise pressure on Iran, isolate it internationally, and hurt it economically by the White House will undermine Abizaid's and Khalilzade's efforts to work with it to calm factionalism in Iraq and restrain the insipient civil war.

Syria does not have the influence Iran does in Iraq, all the same Syria and the US share many objectives. Syria, like the US, was a big supporter of Iyad Allawi in the last elections because he is secular, an ex-Baathist, and had good relations with the Sunni tribes, which spill over into Syria. Damascus, like the US was pushing for a secular arrangement in Iraq. Syria has cultivated good relations with all factions in Iraq. Barzani has traveled to Damascus many times; he has said that he will always be grateful for the help and refuge Syria gave him and his people during his long battle with Saddam. He has tried to mediate between Asad and Washington.

Shiite leaders have also been to Syria. Muqtada Sadr most recently. He promised he would defend Syria against America. I don't believe Hakim has traveled to Damascus, but I am not sure of this. He will be the most difficult nut for Damascus to crack, because he is so pro-Iran and favors an autonomous Shiite state in the south of Iraq, something Damascus opposes. When Khaddam was in charge of the Iraq file during the second half of 2003 and first part of 2004, he brought most of the Sunni tribal leaders to Damascus for meetings in an effort to organize them and "deliver" them to America. By this I mean, he wanted to use them to get Syria back into the Iraq game and open channels to the US. There were rumors in Damascus that Syria was offering to "stop" the resistance, etc. This was clearly an exaggeration, because Syria had little power to do such a think. All the same, had the US played a more aggressive role in trying to accommodate the Sunnis rather than alienate them at every turn during the first years of occupation, the resistance might not have grown so furiously.

Some refused to allow Syria a role in Iraq calling it "blackmail" or "asking the arson to help put out the fire." There is no doubt some truth in this claim. But this charge denies the central role that America played in igniting the resistance. The resistance grew up in opposition to the American occupation, not because Syria commanded it. Moreover, every militia in Iraq is a blackmailer by definition. Neither is the US army immune to this charge. Using force is blackmail, and Baghdad has become blackmail central. The US has arrived at a situation in which it must choose by whom it is willing to be blackmailed and by how much; there is little whitemail being sent in Baghdad today. In fact, the postal service, last I heard, was not operating at %100.

Syria and Iran have discussed plans for building a pipeline from Iran through Iraq to Syria. They have also discussed other ideas for incorporating Iraq into regional economic plans. Turkey will be eager to participate and so will many Iraqis. For any of these plans to move forward, Iraq will have to realize a modicum of stability. The received wisdom about an America withdrawal from Iraq is that the region would be sucked into chaos and civil war should America quit Iraq, each neighbor funding its own proxy militia, as happened in Lebanon. There is much to suggest that Iraq will not be a carbon copy of Lebanon. Turkey, Iran, and Syria have coordinated their policies. Saudi Arabia and the gulf countries are also eager to restore stability to Iraq and play the kind of possitive role there that they played in Lebanon. It is quite likely that as America withdraws and the role of neighboring states grows larger in Iraq to fill the vacuum, this will help stabilize the country rather than rip it apart. The neighbors are eager to stop civil war, put the Jihadists out of business, and invest in Iraq. The US has few options other than to go along with this possibility.

U.S. General Praises Syria for Border Tightening
From a LA Times Staff Writer
March, 17 2006

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. military commander for the Middle East offered rare words of praise Thursday for Syria, saying Damascus has taken steps to stop the movement of foreign fighters over its border into Iraq.

Army Gen. John P. Abizaid said Syria had begun taking action on long-standing complaints by the United States about foreign fighters, one of several issues dividing the two countries.

Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, was asked by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) at a Senate hearing whether Syria raised the same level of concern as Iran in relation to U.S. efforts in Iraq.

"No, I'd say that the flow of foreign fighters across the Syrian border has decreased, and that's clear from our intelligence," Abizaid responded. "We know that. We know that the Syrians have moved against the foreign fighters.

"Why have they? Because the foreign fighters represent a threat to Syria, and they certainly don't want to have these organizations and groups operating within their own country that are ultimately going to be a threat to their own government," Abizaid continued. "So, out of self-interest, the Syrians have reacted in a way that has slowed the flow of foreign fighters."

Earlier Thursday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his nation was central to stability in the region and the West's goals there.

"If they want to talk about peace, then Syria is essential," Assad said in an interview with Britain's Sky News. "If they want a stable Iraq, then Syria is essential."

Besides accusing Syria of inadequate border control, U.S. officials have accused Damascus of interfering in Lebanon, even though Syria removed its troops from there under international pressure after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

This week, Assad relaxed his government's stance toward a United Nations probe of the killing and agreed to meet with the commission conducting the investigation.

The Washignton Post published this article about the border situation some weeks ago.
Tighter Borders Take a Toll In Iraq

Success of Effort Against Smuggling Hits Villagers Hard

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006; A12

OM AL-KABARI, Iraq -- In this once-thriving smuggling village on Iraq's border with Syria, the last donkeys are dying.

Mothers complain they have no shoes for their children and only soup to feed them. Men sit idly playing checkers and bemoaning the night when American scout helicopters swooped overhead, spelling the end of their livelihoods.

"We could get around everything, but not the helicopters," sighed Mahmood Ahmed, 29, who, along with most of the men in this village of 400 people, admitted he was a smuggler. "We're having nightmares about them."

With their income shriveling, the smugglers could no longer afford food for the hundreds of donkeys they used to haul 30-gallon drums of benzene, cartons of cigarettes and other goods into Syria.

"There is no grass, no money to feed them. So they all died," said Yassin Ali, 39, pointing to a mangy, skeletal white donkey lying listless nearby.

The dramatic downturn in the fortunes of villages along the border is one sign that a surge of American and Iraqi troops into the region in recent months has sharply curtailed illegal traffic over the frontier, U.S. and Iraqi officials and local residents say.

U.S. commanders last year launched a plan to gain better control of Iraq's borders to try to stop the flow of outside fighters, weapons and cash to the Iraqi insurgency. Several thousand additional U.S. and Iraqi troops have been sent into regions near Syria since last summer to bolster a growing contingent of Iraqi border guards. Scores of border forts have been built or refurbished and manned, and there are plans to erect a double chain-link fence along the border during the coming year, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

"It's much more than just a line in the sand right now," said Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly of Sacramento, Calif., commander of a U.S. cavalry squadron that oversees about 115 miles of Iraq's northwestern border with Syria, from the Tigris River to the Euphrates. "It's not like a vast open border, not at all. It's a very difficult border to cross."

Syrian border police are also aggressively patrolling their side, Reilly said, in contrast with official statements in Washington accusing Damascus of lax control. "The Syrians are actually doing their job. They are more violent than we are. If they see someone, they will open up shooting," Reilly said as he walked along a dirt berm in view of Syrian guards several weeks ago. Iraqi officers said Syrian guards had recently shot at Iraqi border police, leading to skirmishes.

Controls have been tightened at official border-crossing points. At the town of Rabiyah, a 10-wheel cargo truck rumbled past a newly constructed Iraqi customs station toward a Syrian checkpoint marked by a huge portrait of Syria's late president Hafez Assad. A few months ago, the Iraqi entry point here was in disarray, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Inbound and outbound traffic were mixed together. Iraqi guards had only five rifles, lacked ammunition and "had no idea what passport was fake and what was real," said Col. Fadel Shaaban Abas, commander of Iraqi customs police at Rabiyah...

"The myth is that foreign fighters are crossing a porous border," said Maj. Chris Kennedy, executive officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry. Instead, many of the incoming fighters can simply fly into Baghdad, using valid Iraqi passports made from "boxes and boxes" of blank passports shipped out of Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule, Kennedy and other U.S. officers said. Iraqis are now posted at the border to listen for foreign accents, although many insurgents entering are Iraqis themselves, he said.

But while U.S. officers are less worried about foreign fighters trying to sift through border villages, they express concern that the severe economic impact of shutting down smuggling routes could create a new breeding ground for insurgents in Iraq.
It is also worth reading Imad Mustafa's recent interview on the border situation, terrorism, Lebanon, Peace with Israel, Hammas and more. He is spinning a bit, but what he says is not impossible under the right conditions.

Syrian diplomat: Syria doesn't aid terrorists
March 17, 2006]
(Copley News Service Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Copley News Service

Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, holds a doctorate in computer science from Britain's University of Surrey and was formerly dean of the faculty of information at the University of Damascus and secretary-general of the Arab School on Science and Technology. He speaks four languages and was a co-author of the United Nations-sponsored Human Development Report in the Arab World.

Moustapha visited San Diego recently as a guest of the San Diego World Affairs Council and was interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board.

Q: The U.S. government has complained repeatedly that Syria was aiding and abetting the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. What is your government's response?

A: This is an extraordinary story which is not well-known in the United States. In a nutshell, I would say that this story is equivalent to the story of Iraq's WMDs prior to the war. Two or three months after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, suddenly we in Syria started worrying a lot because suddenly, day in, day out, top U.S. officers would appear on the media channels and say, you know, all these insurgents are infiltrating; they are not Iraqis, they are jihadists coming through Syria into Iraq. We looked at what was happening in Iraq. Syria is a very small country. You are the world superpower. And we know how easily it would be for you just to move your troops from one country to another. Of course, this does not mean that it would be easy for you to win the war. I immediately received instructions from my government to contact top U.S. officials. I had a series of meetings with top officials at the Pentagon and the State Department telling them these accusations were untrue. But we don't want to go into a game of allegations and counterallegations. We are willing to do whatever it takes to secure these borders. We are willing to work with you. We initially proposed three things.

Q: We're talking 2003 now?

A: I would say April, May 2003. We said Syria is willing to immediately engage with you on whatever it takes to secure these borders; we offer you trilateral patrols, patrolling these borders; we offer you intelligence exchange, information sharing; the field officers from our side of the border meeting with field officers on your side of the border. These are just initial suggestions. But whatever you think is fruitful to secure these borders, we are willing to do for practical reasons. And then the level of the accusations continued to build. And when we felt that there was no way whatsoever we could engage the U.S. administration, we started taking unilateral actions on this.

Q: Such as?

A: You need to understand that these are deserts with porous borders. We never had checkpoints or marked borders. So we started by building more and more sentries on these borders, multiplying the number of border guards there. A year before the war, we only had 700 Syrian border guards. Today we have something like 10,000. This is a huge burden on Syria. And then we started building sand barriers. We installed barbed wire. And we increased the number of our patrols. And yes, we managed to capture people who were trying to infiltrate these borders. And then we started inviting the world media, the diplomatic corps based in Damascus, to see our side of the border, see what we were doing, and most importantly look at the other side of the border, the Iraqi side. Not a single human being (standing guard)! All the burden fell on Syria for something that we have always felt would not bring any good to our region. I mean, with due respect, we do not support your war in Iraq. We think that this war created more problems than it has resolved. But just to focus on this, in the past two or three months, if you have noticed, the U.S. administration has stopped mentioning the border issue at all. For a very clear reason: because we have proved to all of the world, not only to the United States, that Syria was not causing the infiltration. In the past two years, we have managed to capture 1,300 individuals trying to infiltrate these borders. Each individual was incarcerated. If he was Syrian, he was imprisoned in Syria, and if he was Moroccan, Egyptian, Pakistani, he was handed back to the authorities of his country. Our message was a simple message: we are doing whatever we can do to control this situation.

Q: So you deny absolutely that the Syrian government was providing sanctuary in any way for insurgents or terrorists from Iraq?

A: These folks who try to infiltrate these borders usually are fundamentalist extremists. They are our enemies as well. And we don't play games with these guys. We know how dangerous they are. Your government used to train them, finance them and send them to Afghanistan to conduct holy war against the Soviets. We in Syria used to tell the Americans you are playing a very dangerous game. These are extremists who will turn against you after the Soviets leave Afghanistan. And they did. And we understand the nature of these people in Syria. We have a secular regime in Syria. They consider us infidels.

Q: There is a perception in the West that many people have that in the Arab world in particular there is a kind of resentment for the West, that Muslims are viewed by the West as second class.

A: In the Islamic world and in the Arabic world, they believe that the West is targeting the Arab and Islamic worlds. They look at what's happening in Palestine and in Iraq and they don't feel happy about it. The United States is so worried, so concerned, about Iran's potential nuclear capabilities, yet it ignores the fact that Israel has the world's largest per capita nuclear arsenal in the world.

Q: A United Nations investigative panel has concluded that Syria's intelligence service was responsible for the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. There is a further extension of this investigation going on. What is the status of Syria's cooperation with that investigation?

A: Probably this is the most serious issue that is facing Syria today. Yes, assassination of Hariri has caused Syria great damage. Great damage. The day he was assassinated, before even the commission did anything, everybody, especially in Washington, was pointing fingers at Syria, saying Syria assassinated Hariri. The important thing is that the United Nations formed a commission and sent it to Lebanon. And the commission was headed by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor. After a year, Mehlis published a report in which he says we have no evidence whatsoever against Syria, incriminating in Syria in this assassination. However, he said he believes Syria was involved. Within one week, a resolution was passed in the United Nations that was very critical of Syria. Of course, Syria was outraged. We tried to say that this report is unfair. Mehlis in his second report did accept the fact that one witness had committed perjury and had misled the investigation. Days later, the other witness recounted his testimony. Mehlis was replaced. Today we have another commissioner, Serge Brammertz. He has actually visited Damascus. We are very happy with the way he is dealing with this investigation. They have 400 investigators. This is considered the largest criminal investigation in the history of mankind. Forensic scientists, criminal investigators, judges. Our concern is that there may an inconclusive result that nobody knows who killed Hariri. Then, the blame will always be held against us.

Q: Now that Hamas has been elected to run the Palestinian Authority, and given Hamas' background and its declared aims, what hope is there for a revival of a genuine peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

A: When Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister of Israel, signed the peace accord with Yasser Arafat, and engaged Syria in peace negotiations, we were on the verge of signing a historic peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Hope was prevalent throughout the Middle East. Today, I hear this in the United States: what are the prospects for peace after the victory of Hamas? And we are bemused and flabbergasted. What prospects of peace were there in the past two, three, four, five years, when the Palestinians were suffering in terrible conditions? Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate, peace loving and was unable to do anything. Israel kept on building new outposts and settlements in the West Bank, grabbing more and more of the Palestinian territories. Building a wall deep into their land. The Palestinians were in a very desperate state. And suddenly, suddenly here everybody is saying so what are the prospects of peace now? I think the Palestinians opted for Hamas because they gave up any hope with the so-called moderate Palestinians. But we believe that it's not Hamas who can deliver or prevent this from happening. It's Israel. Does Israel want peace with its neighbors or not? If Israel wants peace with its neighbors, it must allow the Palestinians to have a sovereign, viable, free state. Otherwise these conditions will continue to prevail for yet another decade. With more violence, with more bloodshed, with more lives lost. And this is insane. And the same applies to Syria. Twice in the past 15 years - twice - we were on the verge of signing a peace treaty with Israel. And twice, this failed. Not because of us. Twice Israel backed out at the very last moment.

Q: Is there any chance of reviving a deal between Israel and Syria in which Israel relinquishes the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty signed by the Syrian government?

A: We cannot convince Israel today to engage in peace talks with Syria. If the Israelis really want their grandchildren to live in peace with our grandchildren, they have to allow us to have back our Golan and allow the Palestinians to have their independent sovereign state.

Q: It looks like the ties between the Syrian government and Hezbollah have become much stronger over the last few years.

A: Hezbollah is part and parcel of the Lebanese social and political fabric. They have representatives in the Lebanese parliament. And most surprisingly, and this always astonishes us, they have cabinet ministers in the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Siniora, who had a red carpet reception in Washington. This is amazing. So the United States administration is upset because of the relations between Syria and Hezbollah, but they think it's all right and good for Hezbollah to be represented in cabinet ministerial positions in the Lebanese government and the United States is happy to deal with this government. I think there is no correlation whatsoever between the Syria/Hezbollah relation and the peace process.

Q: The U.S. State Department says Syria's government facilitates the subsidies and supplies that Iran provides to Hezbollah. True?

A: Of course this is untrue. What I'm trying to say is that Hezbollah is a part of the Lebanese entity. If the United States has troubles with Hezbollah, it should discuss this with the Lebanese government, not blame Syria for it. Just like you blame Syria for what's happening in Iraq. The extraordinary thing is we have the best possible relations with all leaders of all the Iraqi factions - Sunni, Shiites and Kurds. And they all come to Damascus, and they all ask for help and for mediation between the Iraqi factions. And yet here in the United States we are considered the party that is causing all the troubles in Iraq.

Q: If you were the U.S. national security adviser looking at Iraq now, what would you be telling President Bush?

A: I can tell you what Syria thinks should be the best exit strategy for the United States from Iraq. We do not ask the United States to immediately withdraw from Iraq. We advise the United States that they should come out with a very clear plan, a road map, for the withdrawal of your troops from Iraq. With milestones and benchmarks developed by you in cooperation with the Iraqis. In which you say publicly and as explicitly as possible, by this date we will redeploy our troops and withdraw them from the major cities. By this date, we will start reducing the number of troops. We expect that by this date, I'm not talking two or three months, we will withdraw our troops from Iraq. Today in Iraq, people that are not convinced that you will ever withdraw. They think that you are occupiers.

Q: What would happen in Iraq after the troops withdraw?

A: The presence of foreign elements in Iraq will never help stabilize the situation in Iraq. Forget about the mess that circulates here in the United States about the Iraqis unable to live with each other forever. They have lived with each other for thousands of years. We are not asking you to leave immediately. Today the United States is engaged in building four military bases in Iraq. Two of them are ordinary military bases. Two of them are the world's largest military bases ever. The Iraqi people, the Arab people wonder why the Americans are building those huge, enormous military bases. You've done a good job. Declare victory and leave.

Q: Can we expect a democratic opening in the Syrian political system?

A: I personally believe that democracy is a process no one can stop. But it's a process that should evolve from within, not from without. If you look at the democracy you have enforced on Iraq, if you look at the appearance of it, well, that's very good. But we in Syria look at this democracy and we fear some of the aspects. As an example, we in Syria, we are planning to introduce very soon a multiparty law. That will allow different parties to compete freely in the parliamentarian elections in 2007 in Syria. Because of what we have seen in Iraq, we are terrified. We don't want Syria to end up exactly like what's happening in Iraq, where the Sunnis only vote for Sunni leaders, Shiites follow the directives of their clergymen and vote for religious leaders, Kurds for Kurds, Turkoman for Turkoman. No parties would be allowed in Syria based on ethnic or religious platforms. Today Syria is opening up in a controlled way that's not well understood here in the United States. Under the Syrian constitution of the past 50 years, women have had absolutely equal rights to men.

Q: As a Syrian, do you have fears about a nuclear-armed Iran?

A: We do not have even joint borders with Iran. Iran is thousands of kilometers away from Syria. Why are we are supposed to worry about a potential Iranian capability to develop nuclear weapons while a part of Syria today is occupied by Israel? And Israel has a huge nuclear arsenal. When we go to the United Nations Security Council and request that our Middle East becomes free of all those weapons, it is the United States who immediately opposes and rejects our proposal.

Q: Maybe one difference is that Israel has never said that Iran ought to be wiped off the map, and the president of Iran has said that Israel should be.

A: Living comfortably in this beautiful San Diego environment, you can worry about a rhetorical debate. The reality on the ground is today in Syria we have 250,000 Syrians, refugees in Syria, dreaming of the day they can go back to their villages and homes and houses in the Golan, and we have 128,000 Syrians living under the Israeli occupation in their own Golan. Without any rights whatsoever, political or civil.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Bayanouni - Khaddam Link-up: Is the Opposition Real Now?

A flurry of articles covering the different aspects of the Khaddam - Bayanouni meeting in Brussels have surfaced. They are claiming to have formed a transitional government. From one point of view, this is smart politics on Bayanouni's part. He will reassure the military, Baath Party and some Alawites that the Muslim Brothers are not out for revenge. He is trying to send the message that what happened in Iraq will not happen in Syria. It gives some credibility to his willingness to cast a broad net. On the other hand, his new alliance will alienate many loyalists within the MB ranks and within the ranks of his leftist allies. Politics is not easy.

The successful efforts of the Syrian opposition up to date suggest that Syria is not as fragmented as Iraq was pre-invasion. On the other hand, there are many fewer Syrians who have cut their bonds with the regime than there were in Iraq. Even by forming this seemingly united triangle of Islamists, Leftists, and Ba`thists that is represented by Bayanouni, Khaddam and Raid al-Turk, there is little assurance that it has any real purchase on the Syria public. It was a bit difficult to take Khaddam seriously last night when I heard him rattle on about the suffering of the average Syrian. Even so, with the laying on of hands by Bayanouni, Khaddam will have upped his credibility immeasurably.

Bayanouni is coming out of this all as the kingmaker. Are we seeing the making of a future Syrian president? That is the question everyone will have to ask themselves. Is the West ready to throw its weight behind the Muslim Brothers? If anyone can reassure western diplomats that it is time to break the boycott on Islamists, Baynouni is the man to do it. As the first article says: He "oozes moderation."

Syria opposition forms united front to oust Assad

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Exiled Syrian opposition leaders announced the creation of a united front on Friday to form a transitional government to bring about "regime change" from President Bashar al-Assad to democracy.

"Syria is in need of salvation from the autocratic regime which has weakened the country" and put it in dangers "never seen before," opposition leaders said in a joint declaration after a two-day meeting in Brussels.

Opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, liberals, communists and Kurds, launched a "National Salvation Front" and issued a "National Programe for Change" during a six-month transition to democracy in a post-Assad era.

Fourteen exiled politicians -- all men -- appeared on the platform at a joint news conference. Former Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, a defector from the ruling Baath Party who broke with Assad last year after serving the regime for decades, and Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Bayanouni held centre-stage.

"All political, social, and economic partners in Syria will form an interim government that will be ready to take over the administration of the country at the appropriate moment," the statement said.

An interim government would cancel the constitution, organize elections, lift the state of emergency, cancel a law condemning members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death and free all political prisoners.

Assad is under severe international pressure over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri last year, which prompted mass protests and a United Nations resolution forcing the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

However, it is not clear how much popular support the combined opposition can command in Syria, a tightly controlled country where penalties for dissent can be high.

"Bringing down the walls of fear is one of our greatest challenges," Najib Ghadbian, from the Syrian National Council, an umbrella organization for opposition groups, told Reuters.


Khaddam acknowledged the opposition front was not yet complete and said the organizers would now work on taking all political, religious and ethnic groups on board before their next meeting within 45 days.

"The regime is headed primarily by the president himself. So if the head of the regime fell or broke up, definitely the whole regime would fall," Khaddam said.

Asked when he expected an uprising, he said: "This year. I'm sure, inshallah (God willing). In a few months. Bashar al-Assad is making a lot of mistakes and he's digging himself into a hole."

Khaddam and Bayanouni make strange bedfellows, and other opposition politicians say their alliance shows just how serious the opposition is about uniting to oust Assad.

Bayanouni, who oozes moderation and says his movement would welcome sharing power with a reformed Baath party, said Khaddam had atoned for the past and "joined the side of the people to support democratic change". Continued ...

BBC Monitoring International Reports August 19, 2005
Global News Wire - Asia Africa Intelligence Wire
BBC Monitoring International Reports

August 19, 2005


The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's position on the Syrian leadership, the reforms and changes it is calling for in Syria and developments in the Middle East were discussed by Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Controller General Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, in London, in an Al-Jazeera TV recorded interview with Ahmad Mansur, broadcast on 17 August within its "Without borders" feature.

"Regime change"

Mansur begins by asking Al-Bayanuni why the Brotherhood has changed its stand on the Syrian leadership and now calls for "regime change", as mentioned in a statement issued on 5 August, when the Muslim Brothers had previously been calling for "reform, as mentioned in your previous statements".

Al-Bayanuni says that "in spite of the way the transfer of power took place and the amendment of the constitution, our inclination was to give the new regime and system in Syria a chance to carry out a reform programme, if there is any such programme, or to show that it has the desire to carry out changes and help it in achieving this. We affirmed that we were ready to cooperate with the regime to achieve this and were ready to accept gradual reform" because the legacy that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad inherited from the former President Hafiz al-Asad "cannot be handled in a year or two".

Al-Bayanuni explains in detail the steps the Muslim Brotherhood had taken in this respect and the initiatives it has submitted for reform, but he adds that the Muslim Brothers and other opposition political factions had found out that the regime "cannot be reformed. We waited more than five years after this regime was established and said that if the president wished to carry out reform or has a reform programme, he would have started it. But after five years we have found that the state of affairs remained as it is and the situation was even deteriorating." Al-Bayanuni adds that the call for reform is unanimously supported by all Syrian opposition factions.

"Peaceful change"

Asked about the type of reform the opposition wants, Al-Bayanuni says: "We call first of all for peaceful change. We want the country to enjoy a democratic climate through peaceful means. We believe that if the Syrian people can unite their active forces and if all the opposition forces unite and agree on a national reform programme, then they can bring genuine pressure to bear in this direction."

"Fierce campaign of repression"

Asked whether the recent resolutions adopted by the 10th Ba'th Party Regional Congress and the change in the top security posts do not mean that the regime is willing to carry out reform, Al-Bayanuni says: "On the contrary, while preparations were being made for the 10th Regional Congress, an unprecedented fierce campaign of repression was launched. The opposition members and those who held opposing viewpoints were arrested, and this campaign of arrest accompanied the congress and continued after it. This campaign was the worst that Syria had witnessed in the last five years."

Al-Bayanuni adds that the change in the security posts "was a sign that the regime was proceeding in the opposite direction, in the direction of tightening the security hold, and these transfers did not mean anything with respect to the issue of reform".

Asked how the Syrian regime can be compelled to accept reform, Al-Bayanuni says: "The people will be the ones who will carry out the change." Asked whether this means "calling for a revolution against the regime", Al-Bayanuni says: "We seek to achieve this change through peaceful and democratic means," adding that "there are many means, such as civil disobedience, peaceful resistance, marches, sit-ins and demonstrations."

Gradual change

Asked whether there are specific mechanisms for carrying out leadership change, Al-Bayanuni says: "When you change this country in a gradual manner from a totalitarian and dictatorial state, from the rule of the one party that seized power by force, into a plural system of government, this is a reform process that will ultimately lead to change."

Asked whether the present leadership or other factions and parties can carry out change, Al-Bayanuni says: "Hopes have been pinned on the regime believing it can contribute to the process of change and participate in this with the other national forces. But I believe that in the wake of these five years, everybody now realizes that the regime is not ready and cannot carry out reform in its present configuration."

Asked what the Muslim Brotherhood can do to undertake this change, Al-Bayanuni says: "We are not alone. There is a consensus and accord among most of the Syrian factions," and there "is a broad popular current that is in line with these political parties. There is popular public opinion in Syria that aspires for change and is ready to offer sacrifices for it."

Army role

Asked about the role the Syrian army can play in the process of change, Al-Bayanuni says: "The army is a national force that cannot be left out. In the statement we issued on 3 April this year, called the Statement for National Salvation, we addressed the army and emphasized that it should support the people and protect the people, not the regime. The army's basic task is to defend the homeland and the people. It is true that the regime has tried to preoccupy the army with duties other than its basic tasks. But a large part of the Syrian army is motivated by national feelings and is ready to proceed with the people to achieve this change."

Asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood would accept an interim military government in a transitional stage, Al-Bayanuni says: "We believe that after 40 years of the current corrupt regime, there is need for a transitional stage that might assume various forms. One of these forms might be having some quarters from the army assume this task and support the people in the process of change and reform."

Alawites, Kurds

Mansur then asks Al-Bayanuni about the Muslim Brotherhood stand on the Alawite community in Syria. Al-Bayanuni says: "The Alawites in Syria are part of the Syrian people and comprise many national factions." He says the "present regime has tried to hide behind this community and mobilize it against Syrian society. But I believe that many Alawite elements oppose the regime, and there are Alawites who are being repressed. Therefore, I believe that all national forces and all components of the Syrian society, including the sons of the Alawite community, must participate in any future change operation in Syria."

On the Muslim Brotherhood stand on the Kurds in Syria, Al-Bayanuni says: "We issued a paper on our stand on the Kurdish issue and emphasized in it that the Kurds are an essential part of those comprising the Syrian people; that they must enjoy all citizenship rights, like any other citizen". He adds that they should be treated in a just manner and that all encroachments on their rights should be redressed. He goes on: "If there is genuine democracy and citizenship is the basic yardstick for cooperation with the citizens, then the Kurds will win their rights, like all other citizens, within the framework of national unity."

Foreign ties

Al-Bayanuni then discusses the foreign policies of the Syrian leadership, criticizes these policies, and says: "I believe that the countries in the region, in general, would be very happy if this regime was replaced by a democratic and free regime that would give the Syrian people their rights and that did not interfere in the affairs of its neighbours." Asked whether neighbouring countries had contacted the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood "to coordinate on anything in this respect", Al-Bayanuni says: "Our brothers, who are stalked by the regime in their own country, reside in the various Arab countries, where they are treated like human beings. Relations are good with all the Arab governments in the countries where our brothers reside."

Asked about his relations with European countries, Al-Bayanuni says: "My presence in Europe has greatly contributed to clarifying many stands to many Western quarters, thanks to direct and indirect discussions and dialogue." He adds: "I do not deny having relations with Western countries, because I have the right to hold dialogue with all of these parties and explain my viewpoint on the future of my country and work in the interest of my country, Syria." Al-Bayanuni says: "Rejecting support from quarters outside the country does not mean that we reject holding a dialogue with others."

Asked whether the French government sought to hold a dialogue with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to change the leadership in Syria, Al-Bayanuni says: "Our relations with the Western countries are just part of a dialogue and clarification of stands, an exchange of views on the current situation in Syria, and an attempt to seek a solution to this dilemma."

Asked about relations with the United States, Al-Bayanuni says: "We have no direct dialogue with the United States." He says: "We have indirect contacts through studies, institutes and journalists with whom we used to meet and explain our views. As you know, the Syrian regime tried to defame us abroad, incite people against us abroad. They submitted our names as terrorists who belong to Al-Qa'idah. We were forced to explain our stands and how we opt for peaceful solutions and dialogue and shun violence."

Mansur asks Al-Bayanuni why the Syrian regime has not paid any attention to the reform programmes the Muslim Brotherhood and other Syrian parties have called for. Al-Bayanuni says: "Actually, we have had no direct contacts over the past five years, although several Muslim and Arab figures have mediated, meaning the officials in charge of Islamic movements have discussed the issue in their meetings with Bashar al-Asad. He used to promise them that this file would be tackled, as well as the security files dealing with humanitarian cases. But the truth is that over the past five years, no genuine measures have been taken to tackle these humanitarian cases" because "there is a group that manipulates power in Syria and the Ba'th Party, too. It is the actual ruler. It is a group that has monopolized power and resources. Even the Ba'th Party members - they say they have two million Ba'thists in Syria - have nothing to do with the regime. Those who rule are the members of a small group that is actually isolated from the people and even from the Ba'th Party members. They are the ones who exploit the state for their own interests. This group has an interest in the perpetuation of this regime. Therefore, it defends it and does not allow any relaxation or any reform. Any reform will take place at the expense of its interests and power."

Al-Bayanuni says that the Arab leaderships, including Syria, are backed by outside forces. He adds: "I believe that the international climate has changed, and these despotic regimes have not performed the task they were asked to carry out. On the contrary, these regimes used to nurture angry elements that are ready to carry out terrorist operations. I believe the equation has changed now. The international climate has also changed, and foreign support will not last forever."


Asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced "the principles and slogans that you used to raise, such as dying for the sake of God, out of a fear of being classified as terrorists", Al-Bayanuni says: "The Muslim Brothers in general, and we in Syria, believe that jihad should be against the foreign enemy. Our past experience does not encourage the implementation of this principle within one's country. Originally, we never carried weapons against governments. But the state in Syria and the regime in Syria were the ones that cornered a large segment of the citizens in these armed clashes. We succeeded, thanks be to God, in extricating ourselves from this dilemma, to review our march, and to affirm that we shun all forms of violence and that we opt for the democratic and peaceful course."

Asked to comment on an earlier statement by the Saudi interior minister, who said that the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for nurturing all the "terrorist" organizations, Al-Bayanuni says: "I believe that this does not represent the view of the Saudi government. The Muslim Brothers in Saudi Arabia abide by the laws of the country, respect its regulations, and are loyal to this country that gave them refuge. They cannot cause it any security or insecurity problems. Therefore, I believe what was attributed to Prince Nayif does not reflect the stand of the Saudi government."

Asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood is ready to cooperate with Rif'at al-Asad, who also calls for leadership change in Syria, Al-Bayanuni says: "Rif'at al-Asad is part of the Syrian regime. He committed massacres that are well known to the Syrian people. His hands are stained with the blood of our brothers and the other sons of our Syrian people. After Hafiz al-Asad died, Rif'at al-Asad acted and said that he deserved to succeed Al-Asad more than Bashar, after which he kept silent. Now, he has become active once more after several months. For us, we do not consider Rif'at al-Asad a part of the national opposition" and "we cooperate with all the national opposition movements, but we consider Rif'at to be part of the regime".

Source: Al-Jazeera TV, Doha, in Arabic 1905 gmt 17 Aug 05

Syrian Opponent sees Romania-style revolt
By Paul Taylor
17 March 2006: Reuters Limited
BRUSSELS, March 17 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faces the same fate in the coming months as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu suffered in 1989, according to Syria's former vice-president, who broke with Assad last year.

Taking time out from late-night negotiations with a coalition of opposition movements from Islamists to communists in a smoke-filled Brussels hotel conference room, Abdel-Halim Khaddam predicted a popular revolt to oust Assad soon.

"Poverty is very widespread, corruption is extremely widespread also, security is very tight. People are not allowed freedom of speech and the economic situation is at its worst.

"All those factors combined resemble a lot the position of Romania which led to the uprising," the former foreign minister and ruling Baath party official said.

Like the men who ruled Romania after Ceausescu and his wife were toppled, summarily tried and shot in 1989, Khaddam has re-invented himself as a democrat in the belief that the Syrian people will turn to reformists from within the ruling party to govern them after a revolution.

"There is a big part of reformists within the Baath party who totally support my actions. They will be active partners in the regime change and there will be no massacre," said the diminutive, soft-spoken political veteran, who was in government for 35 years until he fell out with Assad last year.


Khaddam said the young president, who inherited power when his father Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, has skewed policy-making in favour of a tiny family inner circle.

"What's actually happening is he's letting the interest of the family around him be the priority behind taking those decisions. What I mean is himself, his brother (Maher al-Assad), his brother-in-law (intelligence chief Asef Shawkat) and the very close family.

"The interest of this family is what is leading to the Syrian decisions," he said.

The opposition is counting on a United Nations investigation into the assassination last year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri to deal a decisive blow to Assad.

Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Bayanouni, the other major figure among the 17 men around the table in Brussels, told Reuters he expected the U.N. probe, which has so far implicated Syrian security officials, to accuse the president directly.

"The regime is headed primarily by the president himself. So if the head of the regime fell or broke up, definitely the whole regime would fall," Khaddam said.

Asked when he expected an uprising, he said: "This year. I'm sure, inshallah (God willing). In a few months. Bashar al-Assad is making a lot of mistakes and he's digging himself into a hole."

Khaddam and Bayanouni make strange bedfellows, and other opposition politicians say their alliance shows just how serious the opposition is about uniting to oust Assad.

Khaddam was foreign minister in 1982 when Syrian security forces crushed an Islamist uprising in the town of Hama, killing at least 10,000 people and possibly twice that number.

The former vice-president now says he deeply regrets those events, but is careful to blame both sides for the slaughter.

Bayanouni, who oozes moderation and says his movement would welcome sharing power with a reformed Baath party, said Khaddam had atoned for the past and "joined the side of the people to support democratic change".

U.S. Responds to Iran, Saying It Is Ready for Talks on Iraq
Published: March 16, 2006

Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said Tehran was ready to open talks with the U.S. over Iraq.

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran said Thursday it was prepared to talk directly with the United States about Iraq, a major shift for a country that has long avoided negotiations with what it calls the ''Great Satan.''

The offer appears to reflect the desire of at least some top Iranian officials to relieve Western pressure over Tehran's nuclear program in return for help on Iraq, which is sliding ominously toward civil war.

The Bush administration said it would talk with Iran -- but only about Iraq, not nuclear issues.

The White House said the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is already authorized to talk with Iran about Iraq.

''But this is a very narrow mandate dealing specifically with issues relating to Iraq,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, adding that it did not include U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program. ''That's a separate issue.''

The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, told reporters any talks between the United States and Iran would be limited to Iraqi issues. Larijani, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said Khalilzad had repeatedly invited Iran for talks on Iraq.

Despite the caveats, any direct dialogue between Tehran and Washington could be the beginning of negotiations between the two foes over Iran's nuclear program.

Bavand said when Iran's nuclear program was reported to the U.N. Security Council last month, Russia and China sent messages to Iran saying that if it wanted a face-saving solution, it had to talk to America.

''Iran needs America to calm the growing tension over its nuclear program,'' Bavand said. At the same time, Washington wants to restore stability to Iraq, ''and Iran has sufficient weight and influence to help it out.''

Another political analyst, Saeed Leylaz, also said Tehran would be prepared to trade progress on Iraq with movement on the nuclear issue by Washington.

''Continued instability in Iraq is hampering America's plans for the Middle East. Iran is ready to use its Iraq card to protect its nuclear achievements before it is too late,'' Leylaz said.

The proposal to hold direct talks on Iraq came a day after the senior Iraqi Shiite politician, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, called for Iran-U.S. talks.

''I demand the leadership in Iran to open a clear dialogue with America about Iraq,'' said al-Hakim, who has close ties with Iran. ''It is in the interests of the Iraqi people that such dialogue is opened and reaches an understanding on various issues.''

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently accused Iranian Revolutionary Guards

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Khaddam interviewed by Elaph on March 15, 2006

The following Elaph interview with Abdul Halim Khaddam has been translated by Khaddam talks about his visits with Jumblatt, Hizbullah, taking MEPI money, Why France isn't supporting him, Bashar's most recent speech, and how Bashar is trying to polarize Lebanese politics.

Khaddam: Assad is acting like a school kid
2006-03-15 00:00:00
Andre Mahawij reported in Elaph, a pan-Arab website on March 15 that: “The former deputy to the Syrian President, Abed al Halim Khaddam has renewed his severe criticism of Bashar al-Assad’s approach of managing Syrian affairs. He found that there is no intent to conduct internal reform or a real direction to treat the country’s crisis. He said that Dr. al-Assad’s speech at the party conference indicates that he is unaware of what [his] words mean and how they may affect the interests of the country.

"Khaddam predicts that Syria’s isolation will increase and that President al-Assad does not act in his political speeches like a President but rather like a student in high school who goes out to protest. On the Lebanese file, Khaddam saw in the discussion that Elaph had with him in Brussels that President al-Assad’s speech raises concern on the relationship with Lebanon because he predicted the results of the [Lebanese] national dialogue and connected it to his policies. Khaddam considers that some sides ... connection with Tehran and Syria ... places some suspicions on the results [of the national dialogue]. Khaddam praised the Resistance [Hezbollah] in liberating the south [of Lebanon] and said it is nationalistic but it has no right to be a part of a foreign country’s strategy.

"On Syria’s recognition of Lebanon and establishing relations with it, Khaddam said that drawing the borders is necessary and natural for the interest of the two countries. This issue is raised between Syria and its neighboring countries and it is natural to say that diplomatic representation is a normal thing in relations between countries.

“This is the text of the discussion with Khaddam in Brussels”

“E: Has Walid Jumblatt visited you? If so, was there an agreement between you two on collaborative moves on the Lebanese and Syrian arena?

“K: ‘I received Jumblatt before and after his visit to the United States of America and we laid out the developments on the Lebanese and Syrian arenas and our points of views met on collaborating for Lebanon and Syria.’

“E: From your political dealing in the last years with the Lebanese sides, do you consider that the current national dialogue could be 100 percent Lebanese? And do you consider recognizing the Resistance as purely nationalistic when its source of weapons and funding is from abroad? Do you believe that the Resistance is connected to the interests of the Syrian and Iranian regimes?

“K: ‘All Lebanese and all those who want security and stability in Lebanon wish the success of the Lebanese leaders in agreeing on all the issues at the national dialogue. There is no doubt that the dialoguers can make the conference 100 percent Lebanese if they consider its stability and security the priority over everything else. Assad’s speech at the party conference held recently in Damascus, however, is of concern because he defined in advance the results of the dialogue and linked them to his policies.

"He also divided the members of the dialoguers into two teams; a national team that is an ally and they represent the majorities and a minority team in Lebanon that receives instructions from abroad and is working against Lebanese interests. President Bashar also confirmed his continuous support for his allies and this speech sheds light on suspicions as to the results because of the connection of some sides with the policies of Tehran-Syria and on top of these are Nabih Berri and Hassan Nasrallah…

"As for the resistance, it is in its nature nationalistic and it did liberate the south of Lebanon and yes it did receive aid but that does not render it to be un-nationalistic. All resistance movements in the world received foreign aid but the minute the resistance becomes a part of [other] strategies that differ from its initial strategy that it was formed for, [well] then it looses it nationalistic trait and becomes a part of other strategies….the Resistance has no right to be a part of the strategies of the Syrian and Iranian regimes.’

“E: There are many demands to normalize the relationship between Lebanon and Syria. Why does the Baath party not want to recognize its separation from Lebanon, consider it an independent country and have diplomatic relations, the drawing of borders and direct dealing with the government instead of trying to directly influence Lebanese decisions and in the best of cases by going through parties that support it?

“K: ‘Syria since its independence had recognized the Lebanese country and its sovereignty and that was confirmed by the participation of the two countries in the Arab league charter and consequently recognizing it from a political and legal perspective. In light of this, recognitions were signed by a number of agreements between the two countries since independence. The Baath party also has this view as it deals with all Arab countries on this basis…as for using some Lebanese parties for its interest, this is not true. If it used it, then it happened for very narrow interests not for the interests of the Syrian country. As for securing the countries interests, it takes place through the relations between their enterprises.’

“E: Please comment on the last speech that President Assad made at the party Arab conference. On the internal side, do you signs of reform or opening up that might avoid the last confrontation between Syria and the international community? On the Lebanese front, do you see a continuity of the same threatening tone directed at this country?

“K: ‘Dr, Assad’s speech indicates that he is unaware of what [his] words mean and how they may affect the interests of the country and he is starting a speech war with the United States. There was no indication in his speech that showed reform or serious direction to treat the country's crisis that is economic in addition to the citizens suffering due to his security authorities. There is no doubt that his policies are going to increase Syria’s isolation and pressure from the international community. He does not act, in his political speeches, like a President but rather like a student in high school going out to protest.’

“E: [Do you have] Any information about the continuation of pursuing free voices and arresting political activists in Syria? And how do you explain the support of parties and syndicates such as the Arab syndicate of lawyers or some other international organizations for the Syrian regime?

“K: ‘The regime in its suppressing nature continues to let the security authorities abuse the citizens. I ask the security authorities to stop getting involved in arresting citizens and torturing them because they will hold this against you. As for support that some Arab parties are giving, well this is imagined support because we all know about the crisis that these parties are living in in their respective countries and their inability to develop and their unawareness as to the community's needs. The same goes for the syndicates that are run by some party members that are isolated from political life in their countries and none of these syndicates can be a part of a legislative institute in its own country. As for suppressing our movement, the regime is incapable of that because we express peoples suffering and let them know about freedom, progress, renaissance and living with dignity.’

“E: It appears that the attempts to put together a Syrian opposition is not moving. What have you achieved up till know around what you promised on forming a big political bloc or an exile government and are these steps coming soon?

“K: ‘Some forces are working very seriously to form an open front to all national forces and people who want to save Syria and establish a new democratic regime that includes general and individual freedom and raises the living conditions for all its citizens.’

“E: American aid to the Syrian opposition did not receive a wide welcome. How do you describe the American role in the development operation in Syria? Do you believe that there are common interests between the opposition and the American administration on this front or do each of you have different calculations?

“K: ‘Change in Syria is the responsibility of the Syrians alone…’

“E: Some countries including France are not welcoming, at the present time, a change in the Baath regime in Syria. Is this true? Are there any regulations on your opposing political work based in France? Are there any reasons which may prompt you to move your activities to another country?

“K: ‘Change in Syria is a national Syrian issue and has nothing to do with this country or that. My political activities do not conflict with the rules of this hosting country.’ - Elaph, United Kingdom

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The full Brammertz report is now available in English:

Writen by t_desco

Full Brammertz report to the UN: Third report of the IIIC established pursuant to Security Council resolutions 1595, 1636 and 1644

Part One: The Daily Star

Part Two: The Daily Star

Michael Young also highlights the significance of paragraph 36:

"The most significant passage summing up Brammertz's current thinking about Hariri's murder came in paragraph 36. The commission stated its belief "that there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur." This was an intriguing formulation, intimating at least three layers of involvement: those who carried out the crime itself, those who ordered it, and an intermediate layer of accomplices who oversaw implementation. This entailed far more than, let's say, an Islamist plot, where the assassins would not require that intermediate layer, which mainly offers deniability."
How do you say 'ominous' in Belgian?

I had commented earlier that this passage seems to point the finger at Syria, although technically even an "Islamist plot" could involve an intermediate layer of "enablers".

On the other hand, the report speaks of "terrorists", but it is unclear if Brammertz means terrorists or "terrorists"...

TheThird UN report on Hariri: by Brammertz

The Syrian government claimed to be pleased with the most recent Hariri report crafted by the new Belgian investigator Brammertz.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the UN Faisal Mekdad commended Brammertz's high professionalism. "This report takes the investigation in Hariri's murder into a new level," he said. "We hope it will lead to the truth behind Hariri's death and the series of explosions that followed since the false witnesses have now been exposed," he added.

"Earlier in the investigations, unfortunately, the worst obstacle that faced the probe so far was falsely assuming that Syria was involved in Hariri's murder with no evidence whatsoever," he added.
Al Thawrah, one of Syria's three government papers had this article:

Al-Miqdad...: [Brammertz] report is realistic, largely professional"

According to the government controlled Al Thawrah daily on March 15: "In a telephone conversation Al Thawrah held with him in New York, Assistant Foreign Minister Dr Faysal Al-Miqdad said the first report by Serge Brammertz, chief of the International Investigation Commission, was characterized by realism and a great deal of professionalism. With regard to Syria's cooperation, Al-Miqdad said Syria's commitment to cooperation was made during the visits that the head of the commission made to Syria and the visits that Syrian officials made to Beirut.

He expressed the hope that all these efforts would be tested in the next stage of the investigation. Al-Miqdad said the previous scandalous reports gave the media an opportunity to prejudge things, but the new report did not offer such an opportunity. He said he expected some countries to continue to say what they had been saying about Syria's cooperation, as they focus on the political rather than the technical dimension.

"... The analysts said the report was a slap in the face of the forces that immediately blamed Syria after every crime in Lebanon. They pointed out that the report brought the investigation back into the legal framework..." - Al Thawrah, Syria
Syria is making the most of the fact that the report said Syria was cooperating, no Syrians were named personally as they had been in the Mehlis reports. Also Syria was not directly mentioned as the author of the crime. Because of these three improvements, Syria claimed a qualified victory.

The report makes it perfectly clear, however, that Syria remains the only suspect of the UN commission in its ultimate responsibility for the killing of Hariri and ordering the crime. What is new, however, is that Brammertz seems to be discounting the testimony given by both Hussam Hussam and Saddiq, which provided the most lurid parts of Mehlis' crime narrative. Mehlis persisted to the end in insisting that Hussam Hussam's testimony given to the commission remained valid and believable. Brammertz seems to have questioned Mehlis' wisdom on this.

In short, Damascus can breathe a bit easier for the time being. As al-Nahar reports:
A well-informed Syrian source told An Nahar that Brammertz’ report represented ‘the beginning of a new era, the most important aspect of which is the withdrawal of the pressure sword that’s been pointed at Syria for over a year’.

“Nonetheless, the source indicated that ‘the outcome of the report does not mean that the US pressures will cease. Its importance stems from the fact that it restored Syrian dignity and shed light on its strategic decision to fully cooperate with the International Investigation Commission…’ The report was issued in parallel with an important first visit, paid by the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Muallem to Moscow,… and during which the issue of mutual Russian and Syrian efforts were addressed, in order to soften Hamas’ positions.

“The report also coincided with the end of the second round of Lebanese dialogue sessions that resulted, according to press reports, in a soon to be made visit to Damascus and to the Saudi King Abdullah Ben Abdel Aziz by PM Fouad Al Siniora...”
The American government was less prepared to claim the report as a victory. Here is Ereli on the subject: Khaddam blasts Assad for mismanaging Syria: Daily Star - Lebanon

Daily Press Briefing
Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman
Washington, DC
March 15, 2006

* * *
QUESTION: What's the U.S. reaction to the report by Judge Brammertz on the killing of former Lebanon Prime Minister Hariri he presented to the UN yesterday?

MR. ERELI: Yeah, yeah. Well, obviously we support the work of investigator Brammertz. He's continuing the important and valuable work of his predecessor, Mr. Mehlis. The investigation goes on. He's moving forward systematically and fairly to get the facts. We'll look at his report. We'll discuss it in the Security Council next week. Actually, I'll just take that back -- tomorrow. He's briefing the security Council tomorrow, so we look forward to that briefing tomorrow.

Obviously, Syria's record on cooperation with UN investigator is not great and we'll continue to expect Syria to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on the Hariri investigation, not just in words but also in deeds. And we will be applying that benchmark to our evaluation of the situation. We will also be, you know, discussing this looking not just at Resolution 1669 -- I'm sorry, 1664 which set up the Brammertz investigation, but also the broader situation in Lebanon as well and implementation of 1559.

Some bits from the report:
The Introduction

The Commission, however, does not deem it appropriate, at this stage, to disclose further details of its work as this may unnecessarily threaten the security of witnesses, compromise the collection of future evidence and undermine the outcome of the investigation as a whole.

4. Those who commissioned the crime

38.Due to the highly complex nature of the sponsoring, support and execution of terrorist activities, it is critical for the Commission to identify and utilize new forms of intelligence and information to establish links between the crime itself and those who enabled or commissioned it. The Commission is proactively pursuing a number of sources which can yield such data.

39.The Commission has also begun conducting a series of interviews aimed at clarifying the existence of an alleged informal oral agreement referred to in its previous report as the "Damascus Protocol".

40.Regarding other previously identified leads, the Commission has evaluated the relevance of issues surrounding the affairs of the bank Al-Madina and concluded that the issue remains a task for f investigation. The second report also mentioned that a fund operated by the former Director of Surete Generale was being crosschecked with other lines of inquiry' This remains the case today and continues to be a factor for investigative consideration as and when appropriate.

41.Moreover, the Commission has undertaken a comparative telephone analysis cross-referencing numbers allegedly related to the Hariri assassination and the 14 other attacks. This analysis has been completed as a preliminary exercise, and remains a priority task for further consideration. Similarly, the analysis with regard to a pre-paid SIM card user has been completed as a preliminary exercise and remains a priority topic for the investigation.

Evaluation of information provided in response to Commission requests

98. The Syrian Government has, through the SSJC, in particular in the last three months, formally complied with nearly all of the Commission's previous requests for assistance. It has provided responses on a number of specific issues that were raised with the authorities, some of which had been pending since November 2005. For instance, on 22 February 2006, the SSJC informed the Commission that it had examined the archives of the Military Intelligence and reviewed records related to the political situation in Lebanon, as requested by the Commission. A number of reports concerning the security and political situation in Lebanon were handed over to the Commission. These and other documents provided to the Commission are currently being reviewed for their relevance to the investigation.

99. Despite these encouraging steps, it is important to note that the Commission will ultimately judge cooperation of the Syrian authorities on the merits of the information provided and the promptness with which its requests are being accommodated. The Commission is currently in the process of preparing additional requests for assistance related to Syria's presence in Lebanon and specific requests related to the assassination of Mr. Hariri. In order to ensure implementation of such requests, the Commission and Syrian authorities will hold regular working level meetings on cooperation matters.

Mussawi of Hizbullah interviewed by Massoud Derhally

Massoud Derhally, writing in Arabian Business, interviews Nawaf Al-Mussawi, Hezbollah’s chief of international relations. It is worth quoting in full.

"The battle Continues"
Sunday, 12 March, 2006
by Massoud A. Derhally

(photo): Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah has defied calls from the international community for the Shi’ite movement to give up its weapons.

Hezbollah — a renegade organisation to some, and legitimate resistance movement to others — now finds itself under increasing international pressure, along with its Syrian and Iranian backers. Massoud A. Derhally speaks to its international relations chief, Nawaf Al-Mussawi about the challenges ahead for the controversial group.

Nawaf Al-Mussawi, Hezbollah’s chief of international relations, is in the Shi'ite group's stronghold of Harit Hrayik, a suburb south of Beirut. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, is giving a talk just before we meet, much of it a rebuttal to speeches made two days before, when a number of political figures including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the head of the Christian Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea took swipes at the group. As Nasrallah finishes his speech, Mussawi, dressed in a black suit and sweater and sporting a razor sharp beard, enters the living room whose walls are adorned with pictures of Shiite religious figures and the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.

As we exchange greetings, he apologises for the delay. Mussawi is a close confidant of Nasrallah and is responsible for articulating the organisation’s views to the outside world. He sits down next to the yellow flag of Hezbollah and takes a deep breath before answering who exactly is in charge of Lebanon today.

The prevailing political stalemate in Lebanon between groups aligned with Syria and those who want Damascus to pay for its 30 year, de-facto occupation of the country, as well as the recent spate of assassinations of Lebanese political figures, has electrified the country for months.

In such a charged atmosphere, little has been able to happen in the country in the past year. The economy has had 0% growth, no meaningful reform measures have been implemented to curb its behemoth US$38 billion debt, political assassinations have continued unabated and relations with Syria appear beyond repair.

So who’s ruling the country? Mussawi’s answer is drawn out. “Lebanon enjoys a particular political system and whoever doesn’t understand this makeup doesn’t know how to rule. The political system is built on political representation and Lebanon has 18 different confessions.The political system in Lebanon must be based on the foundation of understanding and consensus between these confessions before one speaks about other confessions that take part in the role in the governing of the country.” Mussawi emphasises the Shiites are the majority in Lebanon, even though they are not the majority in parliament. The Amal and Hezbollah movements represent them, whereas the Christian Maronite section of the population is represented by a number of figures including Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir and former army general Michel Aoun who leads the Free Patriotic Movement. Saad Hariri, and the majority government he leads at the moment, with prime minister Fouad Siniora, represent the Sunni population.

When the parliamentary elections took place last May and June, an alliance brought Hezbollah, Amal, Aoun, Hariri and Jumblatt together. But things have changed since then, mainly because the newly formed government, largely anti-Syrian, called for an international tribunal to try those responsible for the killing of former premir Rafik Hariri and to look into the subsequent murder of other figures. In response to this, as well as to calls from some MPs, most notably Jumblatt, for Hezbollah to lay down its arms (in line with UN resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon), the Shiite group shifted its alliances.

Yet in the midst of this continuously evolving situation, what has and continues to remain uniform is Hezbollah’s strategic alliance with the Baathist regime in Damascus and the Ayatollahs in Tehran. The Shiite movement sees its fate as diametrically linked to both countries. But by the same token, as a result of the mounting international pressure on Syria and Iran, Hezbollah too is feeling the brunt of the weight of the international community.

In its heyday, when Hezbollah was engaged in a war of attrition with Israel, questioning the organisation’s patriotism or purpose was unheard of, almost sacrilegious. But the Israeli exodus from Southern Lebanon in 2000, coupled with the anger of many Lebanese at Syrian hegemony, has put Hezbollah in a new light. The Shiite group’s relations with Syria and Iran are now constantly questioned.

The relevancy of its army and cache of weapons supplied by two countries considered pariah states by the international community, have raised questions about its loyalty.

Hezbollah itself is largely a concoction of Syria and Iran. The organisation came to the fore during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, before developing over the years into a resistance movement, widely supported by the majority of Lebanese, to counter the Jewish state’s presence in the southern tip of the country. But after Israel withdrew, the dynamics of Lebanese politics began to gradually shift — even more so when the country’s constitution was amended, under the coercion of Damascus, to allow the term of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud to be extended. Then came the earthquake assassination of Hariri in February 2004. That unleashed a rebellion against Damascus and its allies in Lebanon.

But being in the face of the cannon has only emboldened the radical movement. When pressed about whether Syria is ruling Lebanon, rather than the Lebanese people, Mussawi says: “Syria had a big role in forming all past governments. These governments didn’t include any members from Hezbollah's party, and all the top positions in the governments did not include Hezbollah party members. The people who have turned against the role and presence of Syria today were the biggest beneficiaries, and in fact built their political dominion and private wealth by currying favour with Syrian officials and officers. This included influencing decisions regarding the electoral law and investment projects in their towns. Today after Syria’s withdrawal, the role of external forces is increasing, especially that of France and the US, so we can say there is no stability in Lebanon.”

There may be some truth to that, but aside from Hezbollah, which is largely a pawn in the hands of Syria and Iran, president Lahoud is another remaining icon of the era of Damascus' tutelage over Lebanon.

When asked whether Hezbollah agrees Lahoud should step down, and whether the group aligns itself with Lebanon or Syria, Mussawi brushes off the issue. “We are not interested such a nonsensical argument, and we don’t care to obtain a certificate in our patriotism from those who were and still are agents of Israel,” Mussawi says, in a swipe at Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Christian Forces, without mentioning him by name.

Mussawi continues: “We are in no need of a certificate of our patriotism from those who exploited the Syrian role [in Lebanon] and encouraged it. Those people themselves are the ones who need to prove their patriotism. These indictments are cheap and untrue, and those people use these indictments to cover their real face. We, as the Hezbollah party, don’t need evidence from those people about our patriotism or belonging. “We belong to Lebanon, and sacrificed a great deal of blood to free Lebanon from the occupation. And if we want to talk about the issue of presidency, we think it is not an issue exclusive to the presidency but a matter of reconstructing national consensus after the Syrian withdrawal and state institutions.”

As for Lahoud, Mussawi says: “Raising the issue today does not stem from a desire to serve the building of the state’s institutions. It should be raised on the basis of involving all the forces of the country. But the timing now does not require the change of the president, and upon the end of his term there should be a dialogue.”

Mussawi likes to recount historical facts when discussing the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. He likes to point out that it was the Lebanese, specifically the Christians, who invited the Syrians into the country, as the Lebanese state was unable to tend to the security needs of the country in 1975 when civil war broke out.

But then he puts things in perspective, explaining: “Those who asked the Syrians to come started to feel they were losing the struggle, so they asked the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon. During the Israeli invasion, we liberated, through our efforts, Beirut and parts of Lebanon down to Sidon. Beirut was empty of Israeli soldiers and Syrians, so who asked these forces to come back?” asks Mussawi.

He adds: “In 1985, Walid Jumblatt was the leader of a war called Al Alamayn, when he burnt the Lebanese flag against the Amal [militia], and that enraged the inhabitants of Beirut who asked the Syrians to come back. And when the Syrian forces entered Lebanon under General Ghazi Kanaan, he committed a massacre against the resistance’s mujahideen [Hezbollah’s soldiers] and he participated in the killing of more than 23 young men. What mattered to us about our relationship with Syria was to build a strong Lebanon against Israel and maintain civil peace. We want a unified Lebanon with a good and healthy relationship with Syria and our Arab brethren.”

Some in Lebanon say that the root of the fallout between Jumblatt and Hezbollah lies in the ability of secretary general Nasrallah to successfully mediate with Syria on the Druze leader's behalf.

“Let us suppose that this is the reason," says Mussawi. “This means that Jumblatt was trying to rebuild his relationship with Syria, so what is the reason for this strange change of mind and the reason to attack someone you wanted to establish relations with? Just as Walid Jumblatt miscalculated in the Al Alamayn war, he is now miscalculating assuming the winds have changed and hoping that his boat arrives on the beach safely. This is the game of politicians in Lebanon. It’s the game of looking out for your personal interests and about their role as leaders.”

The crisis between Jumblatt and Hezbollah broke up the alliances that were formed in the run up to the parliamentary elections, and ultimately led to a union between Nasrallah and Aoun. The former general had been adamantly anti-Syrian during the 15-year civil war, in which he fought a “war of liberation” in the last days against the Syrians. Now, after having returned from exile, he has been pushing for the implementation of a social, economic and political programme, which he claims is unparalleled by anything any of the other politicians have to offer, and has entered into an alliance with Hezbollah, a group that is backed by the Syrians and the Iranians. He says he has nothing against the Syrians as they are now out of Lebanon.

For his part, Mussawi says the alliance between Hezbollah and Aoun should be seen in the context of the political system that compels tie-ups among the major sects. “We cannot discount a big movement like that of Michel Aoun and build a nation without him. Doing so defies reality and will not bring about stability in Lebanon,” he says.

Yet some in Lebanon believe the deal is leading to sectarian confrontation between the Shiites and Christian supporters of Aoun, and the Sunnis, Druze and Christians of other political leanings. “Were it not for the memorandum of understanding that we signed [with Aoun] I would have said that it was true,” Mussawi says about talk of civil war. But he adds: “We confirmed our readiness for dialogue from the beginning, with all other political forces, and our alliance does not call for war as is the case with the calls of Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt. When you hear a speech quoting Tariq Bin Ziad [the Muslim Conquerer of Spain, who burnt his invading ships and said behind lies the sea, in front of you the enemy, which is being taught in Lebanese schools, it is the same call that is coming from Jumblatt. [It] provokes a large audience among the Lebanese people and is unfair to the resistance. Is it sensible to describe Aoun as a goat shepherd? I liked Aoun’s response to that, when he said ‘maybe like a shepherd I lead my people to peace — I am not a butcher taking people to be slaughtered'. If it was not for the wisdom of the leadership and the public compliance with its instructions following the insane speeches there would have been clashes as a result of it,” emphasises Mussawi.

But why won’t Hezbollah lay down its weapons and become part of the Lebanese army? “The resistance's weapons should not be surrendered unless a final and comprehensive settlement, approved by Hezbollah, is reached,” says Mussawi, echoing the position of Nasrallah. “We are committed to our understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement of Aoun. As long as there is an occupation, prisoners and intrusions [by Israel] into Lebanese territory, we will not surrender our weapons,” says an adamant Mussawi.

Hezbollah considers the Shebaa farms to be Lebanese territory, occupied by Israel, thus justifying the organisation being armed. Mussawi said Hezbollah would not recognise Israel in the future. He said this wasn’t possible, as “it is equal to treason under any circumstances and for humane reasons, we are talking about an entity that is based on a single ‘race’ and discrimination and torture against Arabs and Palestinians".

“Let us not forget that Israel has issued a memorandum claiming all rivers in Lebanon as theirs, and when the Lebanese people decided to make use of the water Ariel Sharon threatened to hit all water facilities. We do not accept this racist entity — whether in Palestine or anywhere else in the world. Our vision in Hezbollah for the future is that there will be solutions to fit the human aspect that must prevail in the 21st century.

“Most Palestinians are living in the diaspora, so how can we accept a settlement that does not recognise those people’s return. The Jews always say they were subjected to a big tragedy, which killed many of them, but they forget that the Arabs and Muslims had no role in this calamity and that the West is responsible. So why do we have to pay for it?”

With respect to the investigation into the assassination of Hariri, Mussawi says Hezbollah supports the investigation. “We are against any one who has committed this crime and we support bringing them to justice — so long as the investigation is professional and objective and is conducted and carried in a way that does not blackmail Syria, as US administration officials have done publicly.

Asked who killed Hariri, if it wasn’t the Syrians, who have been implicated in the assassination by two UN reports last year, Mussawi questions the credibility of the findings of the reports. “This is the task for the investigation to find out. We hope that the report is not politicised because prime minister Hariri, whom we miss now more than ever, was among the basic pillars of security in Lebanon. And if he were alive we would not have heard outrageous speeches. We want the details of the crime [exposed] because what happened targeted Lebanon’s strength and national unity."

News Round UP (March 14, 2006)

Syria president agrees to meet UN investigator and be interviewed in Hariri probe.

Lebanese judges and the UN have agreed on the form of the International court to be established to rule on the Hariri assassination case.

Lebanese leaders agree on ties with Syria but can't delay decision on new President and resistance.
14/03/2006 - 19:26:39

Leaders of Lebanon’s rival factions agreed today to demand that Syria establish diplomatic relations, but continued to spar over the fate of the country’s president and the disarmament of the militant Hezbollah group.

The 14 faction leaders – Muslim and Christian, pro- and anti-Syrian – did agree on disarming Palestinian guerrillas outside Lebanon’s refugee camps, and on the Lebanese identity of Chebaa Farms, a sliver of disputed territory on the southern border.

The convener of the national conference, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, told reporters at the end of today’s session that the talks had been adjourned to March 22.

“The issue of the presidency has been discussed, but it needs to be followed up,” Berri said, referring to the division over President Emile Lahoud, a staunch ally of Syria.

Anti-Syrian factions are pushing for him to step down, but pro-Syrians disagree.

Referring to the other sticking point, Berri said: “The matter of the resistance (Hezbollah) weapons is still under discussion.”
Syria kills 'Islamist militants'
Two Islamist militants have been killed in armed clashes with Syrian forces north-west of Damascus, the official Syrian news agency says. Mohammed Ali Nassif and Yasser Adawi, members of the militant group Jund al-Sham, were killed near the mountain resort of Zabadani, Sana said. There were several clashes between Syrian troops and militants last year. In December, two alleged members of Jund al-Sham were shot dead near the northern city of Aleppo.
Washington DC, March 14, 2006/RPS/ -- The Syrian government, through its private channels, has posted three new "red lines" against the Syrian opposition and journalists intended to stifle further the liberties and freedom of activists and dissidents.

The Syrian authorities declared that any Syrian opposition inside the country is forbidden any further from associating with or congregating with the Syrian opposition outside the country. This comes on the heels of a successful meeting of the Syrian opposition that took place in Paris on March 9 and 10 sponsored by the Aspen Institute in Berlin.

The second so called "red line" prohibits any Syrian from demonstrating in the street. Several demonstrations have taken place in recent months and this new threat is intended to stop people from taking to the street the way the Lebanese people did on March 14, 2005. The third deals with new rules governing the reporting of military news or movement of troops without the tacit approval of State security apparatus.

Syrian activist held for attending open meetings abroad
Ammar Qurabi of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in Syria was arrested on Sunday at Damascus airport upon his return from Paris.

Riad Seif was detained along with at least five members of the Kurdish

Democratic Progressive Party during a sit-in near a Damascus government building, said a statement by the Syrian Organization for Human Rights. They were commemorating the second anniversary of the Kurdish riots in the north of Syria in which some 40 people were killed according to Kurdish sources. The Syrian government puts the deaths at 25.
Russia sees no need for Syria to face sanctions
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Daily Star

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that his country does not see "any reason" for imposing sanctions against Syria because it is "cooperating with the UN probe" into the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

In an interview published Monday by the Russian daily Vremya Novostei, Lavrov, who met with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, said: "The probe is ongoing and Syria is cooperating."

He added: "We will encourage it [Damascus] to fully cooperate, and we don't see any reason for sanctions."

Lavrov said he would discuss the UN-led investigation with Moallem, who arrived Sunday on a three-day visit to Moscow.

Moallem attacked U.S. administration policies blaming them for the "complicated situation in the Middle East.

"The situation in the Middle East is now very complicated thanks to U.S. policies in the region and the continuation of Israeli occupation of Arab lands," Moallem said, according to Syria's official news agency SANA.

SANA added that Moallem was carrying a message from President Bashar Assad to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. administration has been pressuring the Syrian regime over its policies toward its neighbor Lebanon, and the infiltration of terrorists to Iraq through Syrian-Iraqi borders.

Lavrov said he discussed the issue with U.S. officials in Washington last week, saying his "American interlocutors told me there had been some positive shifts."

The minister added: "We will encourage the Syrian leadership to continue paying increased attention to the unaccaptable use of its territory by those trying to destabilize neighboring nations."

Also on Monday, Lavrov met with UN Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Moscow where "the present fragile and complex situation in the Middle East was the key subject of talks," according to a statement issued by the UN Information Center.

Russia, Syria to Push Hamas
Moscow News: Wednesday, March 15, 2006.

Russia and Syria are both trying to persuade the Palestinian group Hamas to fulfill steps laid out in the road map toward Middle East peace, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday. Speaking after talks with Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem, Lavrov said Russia's controversial arms sales to Damascus were in full agreement with international conventions. "Russia and Syria are doing and will continue to do all that is necessary to ensure that the activities of Hamas are heading towards the principles formulated by the international community," Lavrov said. (Reuters)
Turkish Weekly writes: "Syria and Turkey are converging in political and economical terms, which is crucial for the region’s stability."

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"Syria’s promises on foreign investment questioned," by Biedermann

Syria’s promises on foreign investment questioned
By Ferry Biedermann in Damascus
Published: March 14 2006 18:33 | Last updated: March 14 2006 18:33

The highway between Damascus and the Lebanese capital Beirut cuts through some prime, as yet undeveloped, real estate not far from the Syrian capital.

The area is a focus for some of the billions of dollars of foreign investment that were touted loudly several months ago by the Syrian government. But a quick look around a sparsely furnished room in the offices of the Arab Investment Holding Company in the centre of Damascus makes clear that Syria has been here before – in much better times – and all it has to show for it are some mock-ups.

Pointing at several models of large-scale real estate developments, some meant for exactly the same roadside locations as those now being considered, general manager Bashar Dardari says: “They all got stuck.”

Syria’s domestic obstacles to foreign investment, such as endemic corruption, resistance by Ba’ath party bureaucrats wedded to a centrally planned economy and its failure to enact reforms killed the projects, he says.

The Syrian government, still under political pressure over the UN investigation that implicated it in the murder of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, has recently tried to put a positive spin on its ability to withstand economic measures.

Just last week the US government sharpened its sanctions against Syria when it ordered US banks to terminate accounts involving the Commercial Bank of Syria and a subsidiary, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank. In anticipation last month, Syria had switched from the dollar to the euro as its reserve currency for foreign trade. Such a climate may not encourage investors.

Yet, the vice-prime minister for economic affairs, Abdullah Dardari, a cousin of the AIHC general manager, has on several occasions said interest expressed by foreign private investors has, if anything, increased since the trouble started.

In an interview with the Financial Times late last year, Mr Dardari the vice-Prime Minister said many Arab investors regarded Syria as “the last man standing” and would not let it fall, like Iraq had. His government has highlighted several announcements by Arab investors, such as Dubai-based Emaar and Al-Futtaim and the Aref Group of Kuwait.

During a visit to London late last year, Mr Dardari told reporters that Syria would pull in more than $2bn (€1.7bn, £1.2bn) in foreign direct investment in 2005. The government had signed a $1.2bn refinery deal with China and was negotiating with Russia on a $2.4bn oil project.

One of the most visible foreign investment projects that came to fruition in 2005 was the opening of a €13m cheese factory that the French Bel company built for its La Vache Qui Rit brand on the outskirts of Damascus.

At least one Syrian economist is sceptical about any deluge of investment. “They are mostly expressions of interest and I doubt much will come of it,” says Samir Seifan, a consultant.

He and Nabil Sukkar, another prominent economist, estimate actual foreign investment in Syria at some $300m. “That is the size of a single project in many other countries,” says Mr Saifan. Rather than improving, foreign investment has been flat over the last couple of years, he adds.

Like Bashar Dardari of the AIHC, he puts the blame squarely on Syria’s domestic investment climate. This, rather than international pressure, is what has frightened off foreign investors all along. “Not even Syrian businessmen want to invest in this country,” he says. “And a lot of money is leaving the country, rather than coming in.”

The government has promised economic and institutional reforms that should make the country more attractive to investors but after initial banking reforms, the pace has slowed.

The task does looks daunting and the need for reforms ranges from the legal to the financial, from the field of insurance to the area of currency control.

His colleague, Mr. Sukkar, agrees on the analysis of the source of the problems but is convinced that actual reform is around the corner.

Mr Dardari of the AIHC thinks the companies that have now expressed interest in investing will have an easier time of it than him. “Things have changed a bit over the last five years. We were the first, but now people are more used to it.” His partners include some of the top names in the Saudi Arabian business community including the Bin Laden Group and Mr Hariri’s company, now led by his son, Saad Hariri.

Politics did have an impact, says Mr Dardari. His Saudi partners froze all activities in 2004 when the UN passed resolution 1559, which called on Damascus to end its presence in Lebanon.

Both Mr Dardari and Mr Seifan say the really big players will stay away as long as Syria’s overall relationship with the west, and with the US in particular, does not improve. In the past, every time the country’s economy did well, this coincided with a thaw in relations with the outside world.

Syrian Bloggers Unite at Syria Planet

Syria Bloggers Unite: 111 Syrian blogs in both Arabic and English are now aggregated on Syria Planet. It is a great way to get introduced to, or updated on, the many wonderful Syria blogs. Ayman Hourieh is largely responsible for the aggregation, but others, such as Sinan, Ayman, and Yazan have also put their shoulders to the wheel. If you have a Syria blog and aren't signed up already, you can add it on Syria Planet.

al-Jazeera will air a program on Political Prisoners today - Tuesday March 14 - at 11:05. Yassin Hajj Salih, Ghassan Jaba`i, and Faraj Bayrakdar will be highlighted. It should be interesting.

الأصدقاء الأعزاء
يوم الثلاثاء الحادية عشرة وخمس دقائق سيعرض فيلم في قناة الجزيرة ضمن برنامج أدب السجون يشارك فيه غسان جباعي وفرج بيرقدار وياسين الحاج صالح ومن إخراج هالة محمد
مل أن تجدوا فيه ما يفيد

Syria blocked award winner Haytem Maleh
Bette Dam
March 12, 2006

Syria refuses lawyer and human rights activist Haytem Maleh to travel to The Netherlands on March 12th to get the prestigious award the Geuzenmedal. Maleh is awarded - according to the organization Geuzenverzet 1940-1945 that commemorates the resistance the Dutch ‘Geuzen’ made in the second world war against the enemy- because of his ‘brave initiatives for defending human rights’. According to the organization, Maleh should get more international media attention for his ‘courage in face Syrian repression by talking about human rights, the emergency law and the death penalties members of the Muslim Brotherhood can get in Syria’. Other award winners were former president of Tsjech Vaclav Havel and Ingrid Bentancourt, the Columbian politician who has been in hostage for years now.

Maleh is not allowed to leave Syria after he criticized the emergency law, three years ago. Despite heavy pressure from the United Nations and the Dutch foreign affairs department, Syria refused to make an exception for Maleh to travel to The Netherlands. What is more, Maleh is expected before the military court in Damascus for insulting the Syrian president and the military staff. The first trial was in March but the case was postponed until April 6th.

Maleh wants to express his apologies to the Dutch Geuzenpenning-organization for his absence, he said in an interview by telephone. “I am honored to be awarded this prize and I was really ready to leave Syria for this price,” Maleh said. Last week the 74- year old lawyer and the organization in Holland spend a lot of time getting information about the travel status of Maleh. Often, they contacted each other to get the latest news about the decisions the Syrian government would take. Maleh postponed his travel date but in the end - when he arrived on the airport on Thursday night - he was not on the list of those to be granted exit-visas and had to return home.

The Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs Ben Bot will now present the award to Maleh’s sons Anas and Iyas – who will represent their father in Holland. Maleh hasn’t seen his suns ‘for years’ because they are not allowed to travel to Syria. Anas and Iyas live in Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Members of the radical wing of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood played an important role in the 9-11 bombings. Syria role in helping the West to track them down was "comprehensive and without reservation," according to Western security agents.

Germany says Sept. 11 hijackers called Syria, Saudi Arabia
BY JOHN CREWDSON, Chicago Tribune

Within hours of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, German agencies learned that, during their student days, Atta and his co-conspirators had been in close touch with al-Qaida's principal representatives in Hamburg, Mamoun Darkazanli and Mohammed Zammar, both Syrian expatriates who became German citizens.

Spanish authorities later prosecuted several other expatriate Syrians in Madrid with links to Darkazanli and Zammar, most of them members of the Syrian wing of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. One, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, was sentenced last year to 27 years in a Spanish prison for providing the hijackers logistical assistance.

The German report submitted last week notes that in the days after Sept. 11, Syria and its intelligence service offered their cooperation to the United States and West European nations, "comprehensively and without any reservation."
Syria to Issue a Law on Antitrust
Tuesday, March 07, 2006 - 08:15 PM, SANA

Cabinet on Tuesday discussed a draft law on competition and antitrust as well as the establishment of an independent commission called “Commission of Competition and Antitrust.” The move comes in the framework of the Syrian government efforts to reform economy and shift to the social market economy.

Syria Abolishes Organization Formed to Include Hatay
By Cihan News Agency, Istanbul
Published: Monday, March 13, 2006

"Iskanderun Salvation Organization," which was formed to include Hatay in its territory by Syrian intelligence, Al-Mukhabarat, was abolished upon the order of the Damascus administration.

The process was confirmed by Turkish intelligence when it was understood that organization staff were being reassigned.

Reportedly, the winding up of operations started after the deportation of the terrorist organization Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998 with the Adana Agreement signed between Syria and Turkey.

Syria, one of the target countries in campaigns to combat terrorism, initiated by the United States in the aftermath of September 11, accelerated the process to remove its image as a "terrorism supporting country." This attempt was assessed as Damascus abandoning its rights on Hatay.

The Baath regime that claimed Hatay was invaded by Turkey had demanded the city be returned. In this frame, the then Syrian President, Hafiz Asad ordered Syrian intelligence to establish the "Iskenderun Liberation Organization" in 1989.

The organization aimed to conduct operations in Turkey using Nusayris, who live in Hatay, and trained about 1,500-2,000 Turkish citizens militarily and politically.

The organization that was observed closely by Turkish intelligence due to the increase in violent operations in the region by 1990 was seriously damaged in the operations of the security units.

According to intelligence sources, the chief of the organization was Turkish citizen, Fuat I., who fled to the United States after he was identified and later died there.

The Washington Post's Al Kamen wrote a little send up of Jumblatt
Is U.S. Eating Jumblatt's Bitter Words?

The enemy of my enemy, as the saying goes, is a truly wonderful chap -- even if he had also been my enemy.

Back in 2003, after insurgent rockets missed then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz in Baghdad, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt famously said: "We hope that next time the rockets will be more accurate and effective in getting rid of this virus and his like, who wreak corruption in Arab lands."

In early 2004, he noted: "We are all happy when U.S. soldiers are killed [in Iraq] week in and week out. The killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq is legitimate and obligatory." He said he felt "great joy" at the 2002 space shuttle disaster because an Israeli astronaut died in it.

He has also said that the real axis of evil is one of "oil and Jews," and called President Bush a "mad emperor."

"The oil axis is present in most of the U.S. administration, beginning with its president, vice president, and top advisers, including [Condoleezza] Rice . . . . while the axis of Jews is present with Paul Wolfowitz ," he continued.

Jumblatt had been denied a visa a couple years ago on the grounds that he endorsed terrorism.

But he's coming to town next week to meet his pals. Such as? Well, Rice -- who visited him at his home in Lebanon last week -- national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and, yes, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz.

On the Hill, Jumblatt, who's a member of the Lebanese parliament, is visiting with Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) and others.

How did this happen? Simple. Jumblatt became anti-Syrian and even joined the mighty Coalition of the Willing in 2005.

"It's strange for me to say it," he told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "but this process of change" to democracy "has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

Jumblatt. A guy you can count on.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Michael Young Takes Umbrage

I just received this note from Michael Young, which he asked me to post. I reply below.

Dear Josh,

I just read your post on SC, and once again you never miss an opportunity to misread what you read. Let me start off by asking you to do two things. Apologize for your irresponsible comparison of me to Wafa Sultan, because frankly it is a serious charge, dangerous in this political climate, and suggests I have made comments on Islam and the Muslim clergy, when I have never, repeat, never even addressed this issue. I don't pretend to be an expert on Islam or any other religion.

Secondly, retract your phrase, "Michael would probably say that Israel is essentially a good power and a healthy democratic state which embraces the modern world ..." Had you bothered to properly read my article on the Palestinians, and my past articles on Sharon, particularly the one after his stroke, you would know I have never suggested such a thing. I consider, and always have, that the Palestinians have suffered major injustice, that the Israelis have virtually condemned themselves to generations of future conflict by unilaterally imposing facts on the ground in the occupied territories, and that Oslo was the best means to get out of that cycle. This is what I wrote in my recent piece you quote: "Israel has no solution to the Palestinian problem, and will face the existential consequences of its injustices in a generation or less." Was reading this too inconvenient to your argument?

Here's a passage from a recent piece on Sharon:

"Sharon’s legacy will outrun the ghosts of his Beirut victims [from Sabra and Chatila]. What it will not outrun, however, is the prospective calamities the prime minister cedes Israel. Sharon’s strategy of unilateral disengagement, by helping create an aborted, dependant, anarchic Palestinian entity, will ensure that Israel one day abuts a failed state. This state will only nourish Palestinian frustrations, making true peace with Israel illusory. A cornerstone of Sharon’s strategy since taking office has been his overseeing the systematic destruction of institutions of Palestinian statehood, allowing the Islamists and Fatah hotheads to fill the void. In this way, Sharon could claim he had no credible interlocutor to negotiate with."
Does this qualify as endorsement of Israel's "goodness"? Lest you forget, the post-Madrid process (which you implicitly sideswipe by turning my support for it into an effort to weaken the Palestinians) also happened to be one embraced by Hafiz al-Assad. I do not, repeat do not, believe Israel to be a "good power", avoid using such cretinous phraseology anyway, and consider your putting words into my mouth (not the first or even the second time you've resorted to this tactic) quite disturbing.

On the body of your criticism, you also misread my views on Aoun and Lahoud. Nowhere did I say that Jumblatt would support Aoun. In fact, I said he probably would not. Read again. The point of the piece was to say that Jumblatt played a key role in the selection process, and that Aoun was a major obstacle in the choosing of an alternative to Lahoud. That's all. The point was to analyze a situation, without drawing firm conclusions, something you have apparently done in my place. By the way, where did you get that I said that Aoun was better than Lahoud? I wrote a piece, that you actually cite, saying the exact contrary, that a powerful Aoun in the presidency may be worse than Lahoud. Do you actually read what you comment on?

Finally, your drawing a parallel between the Lebanese issue and the Palestinians not only again shows your carelessness in reading what I said, it is a stretch even by your unexacting standards. Where did I suggest that the Palestinians work with their occupier and oppressor? Or that they deserved assassination? (By the way, wasn't it you who essentially in our correspondence argued that Lebanon had to swiftly get over the assassination of Hariri, since they had, after all, benefited from it by getting the Syrian soldiers out?) What I said, since one needs to spoon-feed you everything, is that because the Palestinians have taken us repeatedly back to square-one on the issue of armed struggle, because they rejected the best offer made by the Americans (by Clinton in 2000), because they are again demanding that the Arab states bear the burden of Palestinian decisions, maybe its time to tell the Palestinians that they should pursue their efforts on their own, and not presume Arab and Western support for all their efforts.

Yes, that may be an unpopular decision in the region, but for someone like you who has become a spokesman of the Syrian regime in the past year, that stark realism was shared by the late Hafiz Assad; and as I recall, by Bashar Assad, who tried to resume the negotiation process with Israel in December 2002, as the second Intifada raged on, through an interview with the New York Times' Neil MacFarquhar.

Josh, you're usually fair enough to run this on your blog, anger and all. So let me be very blunt: I've lost great respect for you in the number of exchanges we've had in the past year, because on several occasions, and I've told you this, you simply didn't bother to check your facts, you shot from the hip, you seemed more taken up by the style of your comments than their substance. I know that those are the pitfalls of blogging, but your entry on me is so craven, so irresponsible, so unfair that I can only conclude that all this is just personal. This is not objective, open debate, and it certainly does not lend credence to your claims to be an academic.


My reply to Michael Young

Dear Michael.
I certainly did not intend to compare your views on religion, or anything else, with Dr. Wafa's. In making the transition to her article, I was merely suggesting that in being controversial you were outdone by Dr. Wafa. My attention was drawn to her fortuitously; I received at least 10 emails that morning from people who had googled her name and found a "Syria Comment" post published on her a year ago. I have never known you to be anything but tolerant on matters of religion.

Let me first address the suggestion that my article was motivated by personal animus. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I have always admired your writing and seen you as one of the best commentators on Lebanese politics. You have been able to explain what the present US administration should have been focusing on in its forward policy in the region, better than most administration leaders. I do not agree with you about the premises of that policy for Iraq or Syria, but I do appreciate your analysis, which you have always articulated more clearly than others and with greater insight. There is nothing personal in my criticism.

As for Jumblatt, yes, you do play it safe by writing, “So, does this mean Jumblatt is on the verge of backing Aoun? Most probably not, but…” Then you go on to give the many reasons why he might back him in the end – and, in the way I read it, should back him. You wrote:
don't put this [accepting Aoun as president] beyond the Druze leader if he finds all other paths closed… Aoun alone, because of the communal support he enjoys, can cut the Gordian knot around the presidency; he alone can bring the reluctant Shiites on board, even though Nasrallah is as reluctant to see Aoun in power as is Jumblatt; and he alone can discredit all other Maronite candidates whom the opposition might choose in his place (including the most interesting one of all, lawyer Chibli Mallat, the only contender who has had the gall to organize a full-fledged campaign, and who has doggedly harped on the imperative of removing Lahoud). Jumblatt, ever the realist, might yet decide that it's better to swallow the bitter pill of Aoun now and break Syria's hold over the presidency than to allow stalemate to persist - stalemate that could facilitate his own assassination by Syrian agents. Moreover, deep down Jumblatt may calculate that once Aoun is president, he would have no choice but to confront Syria and Hizbullah.
In order to … deny Berri and Hizbullah an opportunity to kill the momentum to oust Lahoud, Jumblatt must think fast. From one vantage point, the only option he may end up having is backing Aoun, even if he uses the delay in admitting to this as leverage to extract concessions from the general.
Here you put forward all the reasons why logic and realism dictate that Jumblatt may back Aoun – and should, “from one vantage point,” as the lesser of two evils. Perhaps I was reading too much into it, but I also took it to be your understanding of what some in the Future Movement are thinking, and will be urging Jumblatt to do in the coming weeks. They will argue that if Lebanon is to break out of its present impasse, it must get rid of Lahoud and purge the security forces. This is clearly the big question of the day, which is why we both found it worth highlighting in our articles.

Yes, you gave Aoun a broadside in a separate article in your more personal reading of his history and character, explaining how he was responsible for shattering the Christian community between 1988 and 1990, but I paid less attention to that article than the one I quoted above, precisely because it is more personal and, indeed, whimsical. You make clear that it is highly unlikely that Aoun will accept your didactic proposal that he adopt modesty as a policy and withdraw from the presidential race. As you state, Aoun is determined and immodest. More importantly, as “the most popular Christian,” he cannot be forced to withdraw by Sfeir or others. Given that Aoun is running for the presidency and popular, we must return to the more realistic and immediate choice of whether Aoun is better than continued gridlock. Should Lahoud remain in office to the end of his term?

You argued both sides of the coin very smartly in the two articles I linked to, which is why you must forgive me if I took your “realist” scenario to be more realistic. In your response to my post, you write: “I wrote a piece, that you actually cite, saying the exact contrary, that a powerful Aoun in the presidency may be worse than Lahoud. Do you actually read what you comment on?"

But no where in your article did not write: “a powerful Aoun in the presidency may be worse than Lahoud.” Your clarification, or call it "spoon feeding" is helpful. But even so, with its loud “may” in the middle and qualifying “powerful,” you seem to be torn on the matter. No doubt most Lebanese are of two minds over the question of who is better for them – Lahoud or Aoun, which is one reason why the national dialogue has been fraught with such drama and indecision.

Lahoud may well serve out his term because of this indecision. The Syrians most likely prefer him to the unpredictable Aoun, in the hope that their position will strengthen once Chirac is gone and Bush is a lame duck. Syria believes time is on its side. Sfeir, as you write, will not take a determined stand. The Shiites are playing footsie with Aoun, not because they like or trust him, but in order to counter the opposition’s claim that they are traitors and Syrian agents. It allows them to claim a popular majority and call for new elections to threaten the Future Movement’s government majority. In the end, however, they may prefer Lahoud for the same reasons the Syrians do. If opinion makers, such as yourself, also believe Lahoud is better than Aoun because he can do less damage - and I presume, also, because you believe, time does not favor the Syrians, Lahoud may well become the consensus candidate. All the bluster about ousting him, may be just that, bluster.

The problem with allowing Lahoud to linger on is that the world will tire of Lebanon’s indecision. President Bush made this clear in his Lebanon interview most recently.

I thank you for bringing your Sharon article to my attention. It is good and I missed it. I whole-heartedly apologize for misconstruing you there.

As for your claim that I am “a spokesman of the Syrian regime,” I read this as pique on your part and perhaps a bit of vengeance in your wrong-headed belief that my criticism was personal. I have always maintained that Syria is very badly governed, that it is poor when it doesn’t need to be, that the country’s potential has been squandered under the Baath, and that the regime’s focus on Arabism to the exclusion of Syrianism is a terrible mistake that prolongs its identity crisis and retards the day it will move toward greater consensus and democracy. I have written about the stupidity of much of its Islamic education syllabus; I have interviewed opposition members and provided a platform for them to be translated into English. I have allowed my commentators to criticize my opinions and to bash the regime, even when I was living in Damascus and Syrian friends advised me to shut it down. I offered one of the earliest explanations for why internal power struggles may have led Syria’s leaders to move against Hariri. I have few illusions about the Asad regime.

Where we do differ is on how democracy should be fostered in the Middle East. I did not think America’s Iraq adventure would lead to democracy as you did. In the same vein, I do not believe that destabilizing and bringing down the Asad regime through the Hariri investigation or by economic sanctions will promote democracy in Syria or lead to anything positive. I have a rather bleak view of Syria’s potential to become democratic in the near future and a healthy anxiety about its potential for chaos and violence. This is not because I am trying to defend the regime, although many of my readers see it that way. It is because I don’t believe Syrian society has many of the prerequisites for building a stable democracy.

Many of my critics do not share my pessimism about Syria. Some claim that Syria will not go down the road to civil war as Lebanon did and Iraq is doing. Others say that if Syria is to face chaos, so be it; the Asad regime is the cause of its political backwardness because it stifles growth and civil society – the sooner it goes, the less political chaos will result. I can never discount this last argument entirely. I wrote about how the regime-induced, lack of civil society in the Alawite Mountains was a main contributor to the needless sectarian violence that tore Qadmus apart this past summer. Nevertheless, I have argued against externally induced regime-change because I do not believe the state is so powerful as to be able to stop development in the coming decade. You have written about how Hafiz al-Asad was able to preserve Syria’s underperforming socialist economy while at the same time preserving his country’s regional relevance. Bashar will not be able to do the same.

As Syrian oil runs out and neighbors do well, he will be forced to liberalize the economy and create an environment in which capital investment is welcomed and protected or face bankruptcy and internal revolt. The recognition that socialism has failed is pervasive within the government. This will change things in Syria, whether the president likes all the changes or not. Syria will be drawn along by the region, particularly now that the oil-rich Gulf investors are so much savvier about establishing businesses and promoting free markets than they were in the 1970s. In terms of strategic thinking, Bashar is no match for his father, but in terms of tinkering with the economy and wanting to attract investment, he may well turn out to be more advanced. Whether Bashar will be able to contain the forces that economic liberalization is bound to unleash, I don't know.

Will Lebanon gain by pursuing the Hariri investigation to Damascus and Asad himself? I wrote last summer that I believed that Lebanon would be better served to use the Hariri investigation to prosecute those responsible in Lebanon and to get rid of Lahoud and clean out his security system, rather than focus on Asad and his regime, a battle I did not believe Lebanon would win. I am not sure I was incorrect. In a sense, the national dialogue meeting, resuming today, revolves around that very question. If the Future movement accepts Aoun as president and concedes that Hizbullah’s “resistance” is legitimate for the immediate future, it will have made a serious concession to Syria and have decreased the chances that the Hariri probe will advance aggressively. But such a concession will win Lebanon the ability to move against Lahoud, purge the security apparatus which he oversees, and begin mending some of the internal divisions that now have stymied national progress on any front. Allowing Lahoud to clog up the presidency for another year and a half in order to spite the Syrians and stiff Aoun, who for strategic reasons is now protecting Syria, may not be worth it. You counsel Hamas members to give up their spite in order to move on. You urge Arab leaders to impress this on Hamas; this seems like sage advice. Arab leaders are now giving similar advice to their Lebanese allies; perhaps it is not unwise.

This is where our real differences lie.

With all respect, Joshua

Friday, March 10, 2006

Michael Young on Aoun, Jumblatt, Asad and Hamas

Michael Young is in his element lambasting Aoun, Lahoud, Berri and other Lebanese leaders who are soft on Syria. In his article, "Can you sidestep Aoun in ousting Lahoud?" he answers, his own question with a resounding, "no." He expects that Jumblatt will eventually be forced to support Aoun for president because it will be the only way to oust Lahoud. Even though Young scorns Aoun for going soft on the Syrians and, even worse, suggesting that Hariri could have been killed by Islamists, he knows that Aoun is better than Lahoud. He figures that once in power, Aoun will become anti-Syrian and anti-"resistance." His ego is too big; he is too much a Mr. Me, masquerading as a Mr. Lebanon, not to turn against Syrian and Hizb demands. As Michael writes:

Jumblatt, ever the realist, might yet decide that it's better to swallow the bitter pill of Aoun now and break Syria's hold over the presidency than to allow stalemate to persist - stalemate that could facilitate his own assassination by Syrian agents. Moreover, deep down Jumblatt may calculate that once Aoun is president, he would have no choice but to confront Syria and Hizbullah.
Oddly enough, Michael works himself into high dudgeon about Aoun working with Lebanon's erstwhile occupier and oppressor, but then councils the Palestinians to do exactly that. He has zero tolerance for Palestinian grandstanding on moral grounds, because it assures their stagnation and continued suffering. If their leaders were assassinated by Sharon and Israel's leadership, well, perhaps they deserved it, or, perhaps, they just cannot do anything about it. Better to suck in their pride and get down to dealing with the big boy on the block, Israel.

There is considerable logic to this council. So why shouldn't the Lebanese do the same? Michael would surely say: first, the Syrians are not strong; they just seem like it. Michael has been suggesting for some time that Bashar's regime is wobbling on antiquated and arthritic legs. Lebanon and the West must deal it the coup de grace. Israel is stung; Syria is not; no need to compromise with it.

Secondly, Michael would probably say that Israel is essentially a good power and a healthy democratic state which embraces the modern world, whereas, Syria is evil, despotic and backwards; it will suck Lebanon into the rat's hole of darkness and division. So, even if Syria were strong, and it's not, it would be worth fighting against it. Lebanon can only elevate itself through struggle against benighted Syria; Palestinians can only descend into obscurantism and backwardness by fighting enlightened Israel.

These, so far as I can see, are the main reasons Michael stokes the flames of Lebanese pride and calls for struggle until the house of Asad is no more; while he douses the flames of Palestinian pride and councils the world, and particularly the Arab states, not to support Hamas or Palestinian resistance in their rejection of Tel Aviv.

I will take up this assessment in a later post. Michael has good company today in the Syrian Dr Wafa Sultan, who John Broder profiles in the New York Times, and whose al-Jazeera appearance last week has caused a major stir.

March 11, 2006
The Saturday Profile
For Muslim Who Says Violence Destroys Islam, Violent Threats By JOHN M. BRODER
LOS ANGELES, March 10 — Three weeks ago, Dr. Wafa Sultan was a largely unknown Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles, nursing a deep anger and despair about her fellow Muslims.

Today, thanks to an unusually blunt and provocative interview on Al Jazeera television on Feb. 21, she is an international sensation, hailed as a fresh voice of reason by some, and by others as a heretic and infidel who deserves to die.

In the interview, which has been viewed on the Internet more than a million times and has reached the e-mail of hundreds of thousands around the world, Dr. Sultan bitterly criticized the Muslim clerics, holy warriors and political leaders who she believes have distorted the teachings of Muhammad and the Koran for 14 centuries.

She said the world's Muslims, whom she compares unfavorably with the Jews, have descended into a vortex of self-pity and violence.

Dr. Sultan said the world was not witnessing a clash of religions or cultures, but a battle between modernity and barbarism, a battle that the forces of violent, reactionary Islam are destined to lose.

In response, clerics throughout the Muslim world have condemned her, and her telephone answering machine has filled with dark threats. But Islamic reformers have praised her for saying out loud, in Arabic and on the most widely seen television network in the Arab world, what few Muslims dare to say even in private. (continue..)
"Syria diminishes importance of new US sanction"
Bahia Mardidni reported in Elaph, a pan-Arab newspaper, on March 10 that: “Syria considered today ‘that the American decision to ban US banks from dealing with the Commercial Bank of Syria will not effect the Syrian banking system because this is a procedure of a political nature’. The general manager of the Syrian bank, Darid Dargham, said in a press statement that ‘the US’s decision will not have any consequences because the sanctions have been applied for almost two years and the bank has [already] suffered from the consequences of the US’s step that today has become official’. He added that ‘the decision will not have any serious effects because it abides US banks only that have been applying [the sanctions] before the issuing of the official decision from the American government and the commercial bank does expect the banks that refused the US pressures in not dealing with us to do so today [again]’. Dargham mentioned the last Syrian government’s decision, taken a short while ago, to restrict the public sector -in its contracts abroad- in dealing in Euros was a precautionary step to diminish the difficulties that the public sector faces when it deals with the US dollar’.

Mardini continued: “The head of the Syrian Central Bank Dr. Adib Mayaleh criticized the US decision and considered it to be a part of the organized campaign that the United States has launched on his country. Mayaleh denied the accusation of the Syrian banking system’s involvement in money laundering especially after Syria formed a committee for this subject specifically, as well as [participated in] international and Arab conferences to discuss this phenomenon. He confirmed that there were no cases that involve the Syrian banking with illegal operations and said that the accusations of money laundering were false and their correctness was never proven’. The American foreign ministry had imposed sanctions, yesterday, on the Syrian Commercial Bank which includes [cutting off] all financial institutions and American bank accounts with American banks and the banning of any financial transaction with it [Syrian commercial bank] in the future.” - Asharq Al Awsat, United Kingdom

More on this here: "Syria says U.S. order to halt business with two banks part of political pressure."

from Jazeera: clashes outside of Justice Palace
Al Jazeera reported on March 9 that: "A number of Syrian opposition members have clashed with hundreds of university students after staging a demonstration in front of the Palace of Justice in Damascus. The clashes took place while dozens of oppositionists were staging a sit-in to protest against the continuation of emergency law which has been implemented in Syria for 43 years." - Al Jazeera, Qatar

Lysandra Ohrstrom has written a spirited article on the Lebanese Blogosphere
An explosion of blogging activity corresponds to protests that erupted last year on March 14. She highlights the duel between Tony Badran and As'ad Abu Khalil.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What is at Stake in Lebanon's National Conference?

The national conference of sectarian leaders in Lebanon, which has been meeting all week in an attempt to fix Lebanon, broken off their talks until Monday.

Walid Jumblatt, who rejects the basic premise of the deal being hammered out, quit the meeting after its first day to head for Washington. He believes that only Washington can help Lebanon succeed in ousting President Lahoud and disarming Hizbullah, the two requirements for destroying Syrian influence in Lebanon. He wanted nothing to do with the national dialogue.

Why? He explained that "the pro-Syrian Amal-Hizbullah coalition had hoped to strike a deal with the anti-Syrian [Hariri led] coalition that would allow Hizbullah to keep its arms in return for letting them name the next president." Jumblatt further said the dialogue had reached a deadlock because participants disagreed over the Shebaa Farms issue and Hizbullah's disarmament. Jumblatt is not content to get rid of Lahoud at the price of continuing Hizbullah's immunity.

The Daily Star's Nada Bakri and Nafez Qawas have a good article on this. They explain how the impasse came about. Hizbullah is blaming the conference's failure on Jumblatt's perfidy, claiming he is an agent of the West and doesn't have Lebanon's best interests at heart. Jumblatt blames Hizbullah for being non-Lebanese. They are Syrian tools, according to his assessment, thus the National Dialogue that might have led to Hizbullah's legitimization, had to be sabotaged. He blames the failure of the National Dialogue on President Assad.

Hizbullah's Al-Manar television said the Druze leader's outspoken comments had been a factor in the conference's adjournment.

"It seems Jumblatt's comments have had an impact on the meeting, forcing a reaction from those who are opposed to him," the channel reported.

Political sources close to a participant in the dialogue told The Daily Star Jumblatt's comments were strongly opposed by Berri and Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

Rumors emerged that an argument erupted when participants began discussing Hizbullah's arms and the Shebaa Farms, with Nasrallah and Berri questioning the point of such dialogue when Jumblatt was only trying to derail them.

Nasrallah then allegedly stormed out of the room. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and Hariri failed to convince Nasrallah to rejoin the talks, the rumors say. As a result, the talks were postponed.

MP Elie Skaff, representing Lebanon's Greek Catholic community and the first to leave the dialogue, hinted in comments to reporters that the dialogue was postponed over Jumblatt's remarks. "It has been adjourned until next week to allow time for additional contacts and await the return of MP Walid Jumblatt."

Democratic Gathering [Jumblatt's party] MP Wael Bou Faour told The Daily Star a Syrian decision to break off the dialogue has been passed.

"The pro-Syrian coalition does not have the authority to oust Lahoud, only President Assad can take this decision and he is not yet ready to give up on this card without receiving an outstanding price for it ... therefore they decided to end it," Bou Faour said, refusing to elaborate further.

Reports also emerged that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal will arrive in Beirut on the weekend to complete preparations for an Arab initiative that will sort out the situation. The initiative is expected to be announced during the Arab Summit to be held in Sudan this month.
Saad Hariri and members of his coalition, such as Geagea, are being much more upbeat about the National Dialogue, insisting that it is not over. Although, they refuse to repudiate Jumblatt -- which is clearly what Nasrallah wants them to do, they continue to court Hizbullah and Amal. Hariri and his allies can only be frightened by the Aoun-Shiite understanding. They want to nip it in the bud in order to assure that they get to name the next president of Lebanon. This means being nice to Hizbullah (and Syria), which is anathema to Jumblatt.

Since the National Pact was first hammered out in 1943, the Sunni-Christian alliance has been at the heart of Lebanon's political arrangement and stability. When it fell apart, the country burst into civil war. Rafiq Hariri was able to rebuild the alliance. The wild card is the emergence of the Shiites as a well-oiled political machine. They demand a change in the basic structure of Lebanon's National Pact. As the largest sect, they are no longer content to be treated as the dirt farmers and coffee boys to the country's Christian and Sunni za'ims.

The Aoun - Hizbullah entente, worked out some weeks ago, suggests that a Christian - Shiite alliance could be formed that would effectively squeeze out the Sunnis. Saad Hariri and his group must fear this possibility. They want the Shiites to form a Sunni - Shiite alliance, which would squeeze out the Aoun's FPM. Hariri has promise the Christians that they will not be squeezed out if they back him, rather that their true strength and interests can only be realized by working with him. The Kornet Shahwan group, along with Geagea's Lebanese Front and the Patriarch have accepted this logic. Aoun has not.

Syria can live with either combination, so long as the pro-Syrian Shiites are ensconced in power and can protect Syrian interests in Lebanon. Syria's interests are two-fold. First, Lebanon must remain on the side of anti-Israeli resistance to ensure the return of the Golan. Second, Lebanon must not go headlong into the Western camp, allowing it to be used as a bridgehead in the region for over-turning or pressuring the Syrian regime. Syria will demand that whichever party gets to dance with the Shiites should soft-peddle the Hariri murder investigation, which remains France's and America's main hope for putting the screws to Syria.

This is why Jumblatt so adamantly opposes either combination. First the Druze would be cut out by either deal. Second, Asad, who hates Jumblatt more than any other Lebanese, would also be cut out along with his ally, Hizbullah. The Druze would prefer for the Shiites to be excluded from real power and to continue with the traditional Sunni - Christian combination. Because the Sunni - Christian combination is inherently weak - it represents little more than 50% of the population - the Druze community and Jumblatt would remain an important swing vote in government.

The US government is remaining very tight lipped. Reporters have asked for clarification, but both Rice and the President's spokespeople are being laconic. The only thing they will say is that US support for resolution 1559 is firm and well known, but insist that the National Dialogue is a Lebanese decision. The US doesn't want to interfere.

Meanwhile, the patriarch Sfeir is busy trying to patch up relations between pro and anti-Syrian Christian leaders. This may undercut Aoun's future support if more Christian leaders can be brought into the Future Movement, or at least, if divisions between them are healed.

»Chouf MP takes Lebanon's concerns to Washington: This is a pro-Jumblatt piece.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The New Party Law - Nothing New

Sami Moubayed explains in his recent article: "Friends of the Baath," the "freedom" that will be granted by the New Party Law, the draft of which has appeared and caused an uproar among the Syrian opposition. Here are his last few sentences:

The main qualifications of the founder [of any new party] should be: "that he has not acted in behaviour that is opposed to the Revolution of March 8". This means any person opposed to the Baath who has written, preached, or acted in the opposition since 1963 will be denied a political platform. The founding members should be 10. They should all abide by the general rule which is: "To preserve the objectives of the Revolution of March 8."

Another clause in this domain is Article 17, which says, "It is prohibited to re-launch any party that was disbanded before the year 1963."

Meaning, the National Party of Damascus, the People's Party of Aleppo, and clearly the Muslim Brotherhood, will not be allowed to re-operate.

The only three parties operating before 1963 which will be working in Syria are the Baath, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) that was banned in 1955 and re-permitted in 2005, and the Communist Party.

With these regulations, it is doubtful whether the multi-party law will be really effective in Syria. It means that the only parties allowed to operate will be the ones that are allied to the Baath, created by the Baath or friends of the Baath.
The draft law also prohibits any foreign activity on the part of Syrian parties:
All parties are clearly prohibited from operating outside Syria or even marketing their views with Syrians in the diaspora or among non-Syrians. This is currently being challenged by a multi-party law draft proposed by the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of parties headed by the Baath, which says that marketing views outside of Syria is allowed, but fund-raising from abroad is not.
One Syrian friend living in Damascus, who has long worked in the opposition laments what this will mean for Syrians. He also criticizes the way many opposition members have jumped aboard the governments refusal to allow any foreign funding of civil society projects that can be cast by the government as "opposition," which is just about anything. We have already witnessed this with the closure of Anwar al-Bunni's new Center for Human Rights in Damascus, which was shut down by the government last week. My friend writes:
Dear Josh,
The "Syria Democracy Program", announced recently by US State Department, was not well received/understood by the Syrian opposition, I am afraid. As you know, the issue of a foreign financing is very sensitive for the traditional opposition, and they will try to deny receiving any foreign support, even if they accepted it.

Syrian laws forbid accepting such finances and serious penalties may be imposed in such cases. The "expected" party law will forbid receiving such finances also. As a result, I think that these finances will, eventually, find their way to opposition figures living abroad, which represents a wrong route, in my opinion.

Personally, I think that this program represents a good move from the American side, as a start. The question is: is the Syrian opposition ready to make use of it? I think that the Syrian opposition needs assistance in this regard too.

In my opinion, the program should start with financing a good deal of workshops, gathering as much as possible of Syrian opposition figures, living in Syria and abroad, to discuss questions, such as: should we accept foreign assistance? Do we need it? Can we accept it? Under which conditions? Etc.

One might expect here a clear polarization about these issues, but I expect that some kinds of support will be accepted by most parties, for example:

• Scholarships to Syrian students to study politics, economics, and related subjects;
• Scholarships to international experts to come to Syria, and conduct studies about Syrian politics;
• Workshops and study tours to Syrian opposition figures to learn about political life in the west;
• Translation of English websites, like yours, into Arabic, and translation of some Arabic websites into English…

Monday, March 06, 2006

Jumblat at Brookings

A friend who attended Walid Jumblatt's talk at Brookings wrote this:

This morning, The Saban Center at Brookings hosted Walid Jumblatt in advance of his meetings with Secretary Rice. The audience was standing room only in the Brookings Auditorum, perhaps 200-250 people. Jumblatt made brief comments, opening with references to his father, and the price his father paid for resisting Syrian ambitions in Lebanon. He said that he had felt he had to compromise with Syria in 1978, and that he regretted having done so. Noting that it had taken 28 years for him to find the courage of his father, he expressed the hope that his father is satisfied with the position he is taking against Syria today. It was an interesting and revealing way to leapfrog over Jumblatt's complicated ties with Syria in the period since his father was killed, and re-connect himself to a purer form of anti-Syrian, Lebanese nationalist sentiment.

His stress during the Q&A was on the paramount need for the removal of Lahoud, and the need to do so without conceding to the demands of other Lebanese parties on Sheba Farms, or to take other steps that would compromise the sovereignty of the central state. Speaking of Syria's future, he rejected the argument of Bashar that if the regime fell there would be chaos in Syria. The view seemed especially instrumental given that he also offered a thinly veiled critique of US policy in Iraq by pointing out that there is no central state in Iraq anymore, and suggesting that while the removal of Saddam was for the good, the outcome has created "challenges" all across the Middle East. At the same time, he seemed to be arguing against regime change in Syria via external intervention, suggesting it would need to be the work of the Syrian opposition itself. He seemed relatively unconcerned with the possibility that a post-Asad Syria might be Islamist, reflecting on the elections in Palestine and offering the view that in the long run, democracy is preferable even it produces short-term outcomes like the victory of Hamas. He also seemed to take the view that governing will temper the radicalism of Hamas. When asked why the U.S. should care about Lebanon, the argument was that having democracies in the region is good for the U.S., and that if the U.S. didn't act on its expressed commitment to political reform, it will undermine U.S. credibility.

He expressed an interest in U.S. support for efforts to strengthen the Lebanese military, in particular.

Jumblatt said he met with Khaddam in Paris, wouldn't comment on his potential as a possible leader of the opposition, but did affirm his sense that Khaddam's testimony to the Mehlis commission was "important."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Robert Kaplan Recants

Last week, Fukiyama condemned the US's Iraq policy as a failure, and criticized many of his erstwhile neocon colleagues for making it so. This week Robert Kaplan follows suit in an extraordinary article in which he criticizes "neoconservatives yearning to topple Bashar al-Assad." He also argues that "the last thing we should do is actively precipitate" the demise of Syria's dictatorial regime. He believes it will happen in time because of globalization. Thus the best policy is to help Asad globalize. This means Kaplan, in theory, favors Europe signing the Madrid process and the US dropping economic sanctions against Syria in order to drag it more quickly into the world economy which will in turn cause Syrians to become better educated and richer and more able to demand their rights. Quite a turn around for Kaplan.

This makes good sense. It is the policy that the US has insisted on following with China for the last two decades. It has had good results. It makes sense for Syria. Anyway, America's experiment in bringing good government to Iraq, suggests that there are many things worse than dictatorship.

We can't force democracy
By Robert D. Kaplan, Washington Post, March 2, 2006

The decision to remove [Saddam Hussein from power] was defensible, while not providential. The portrait of Iraq that has emerged since his fall reveals him as the Hobbesian nemesis who may have kept in check an even greater anarchy than the kind that obtained under his rule.

The lesson to take away is that where it involves other despotic regimes in the region -- none of which is nearly as despotic as Hussein's -- the last thing we should do is actively precipitate their demise. The more organically they evolve and dissolve, the less likely it is that blood will flow. That goes especially for Syria and Pakistan, both of which could be Muslim Yugoslavias in the making, with regionally based ethnic groups that have a history of dislike for each other. The neoconservative yearning to topple Bashar al-Assad, and the liberal one to undermine Pervez Musharraf, are equally adventurous.

"[B]efore the names of Just and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power," Thomas Hobbes wrote in "Leviathan." Without something or somebody to monopolize the use of force and decide right from wrong, no man is safe from another and there can be no freedom for anyone. Physical security remains the primary human freedom. And so the fact that a state is despotic does not necessarily make it immoral. That is the essential fact of the Middle East that those intent on enforcing democracy abroad forget.

Globalization and other dynamic forces will continue to rid the world of dictatorships. Political change is nothing we need to force upon people; it's something that will happen anyway. What we have to work toward -- for which peoples with historical experiences different from ours will be grateful -- is not democracy but normality. Stabilizing newly democratic regimes, and easing the development path of undemocratic ones, should be the goal for our military and diplomatic establishments. The more cautious we are in a world already in the throes of tumultuous upheaval, the more we'll achieve. [complete article]

The US Institute of Peace has published a summary of its latest seminar on Syria meeting here. "Syria and Political Change II " is written up by Scott Lasensky and Mona Yacoubian.

The Stimson Institute has posted their summary of the "Roundtable on Syria with David Ignatius and Joshua Landis."

Massoud Derhally has an very interesting interview with Hamadeh, Jumblatt's right hand man, which sums up Lebanon's dilemma well.

"Back from the dead"
Massoud A. Derhally
Arabian Business
Published: March 5, 2006

This presents a conundrum for Hamadeh and the present government. But they see a resolution to the current impasse. "We think things can be unblocked by two elements; one is the inquiry and the international court and this could get Lahoud and break the bottleneck.

"The second thing is the unnatural alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah, which with the final analysis and time, will appear to the Christian constituency as unacceptable.

"The Christians will not allow anyone, even Aoun, to drive them back to the Syrian orbit or Iranian hegemony. We should, in the next few months, probably see major changes," predicts Hamadeh.

Hamadeh emphasises the political system in the country is one of consensus and not one of majority. "Lebanon is an alliance of minorities. However big a community is, it is still a minority next to the other minorities united. But a consensus system does not mean you don't have a system of checks and balances made and implemented," says Hamadeh. "It doesn't mean that you can block a government decision simply because it doesn't please Washington, Tehran or Damascus. There should be a margin of independence expressed in a way the system is consecrated by the constitution."
Activists slam closure of human rights centre

DAMASCUS, 5 March (IRIN) - Activists have slammed a government decision to close the country's first human rights centre, which opened in mid-February with support from the European Union (EU).

"This is a sign to the EU and other countries that it's hopeless to form civil
society here and promote change," said centre director and prominent human
rights lawyer Anwar Bunni, who confirmed that the centre was shut down two days

According to the government, the Damascus-based centre, which
offered legal advice, counselling and training on human rights issues, was
closed because it had not received official permission to operate. No one was
available for comment on the issue on Sunday.

Bunni described the centre
as a "red line" that civil society was unable to cross. "I remain hopeful that
the decision will be reversed and we will continue our struggle," he said. "We
hope the EU will continue to support us."

The opening of the centre on
23 February had been considered a major breakthrough on the local human rights
front. At the time, the head of the EU delegation Frank Hesske to Syria said it
was aimed at building "a stronger Syria".

Hesske said the centre – a
"one-stop shop" instituted to train lawyers, journalists and others on human
rights issues – was intended "to ensure that internationally adopted human
rights laws are adhered to."

The centre was part of a two-year project
by the Belgium-based Institute for International Assistance and Solidarity, with
93,000 Euros (US $111,000) of funding provided by the EU.

Although many
observers say that rights activists are able to work more freely now than in
previous years, Damascus continues to come in for heavy criticism by
international human rights organisations.

In 2005, Amnesty International
reported that hundreds of people had been arrested in Syria for political
reasons, with many held incommunicado and allegedly tortured or mistreated.
Bunni said that some 1,500 political detainees were still languishing in Syrian

According to Bassam Ishak, a spokesman for the Syrian Human
Rights Organisation, the closure of the centre represented a "step back for the
civil society movement in Syria". "We hope the government and the EU will reach
an agreement and we hope the centre will reopen," Ishak said.

Friday, March 03, 2006

News Round UP (March 4, 2006)

Is Syria wiggling its way out of isolation?
King Juan Carlos of Spain received Syria's Minister of Information Dr. Mohsen Bilal at the royal palace of Zarzuela on Wednesday. He said that Spain was ready to help Syria in its process of reform and modernization. The King and Queen sent thier best wishes to Bashar and Asmaa al-Asad.

The highest level EU delegation to visit Syria in many months has come to Syria to discuss what can be done to get the Partnership Association Pact finalized, that was intitialed in 2004, but halted due to the Hariri murder.

If promises are in the air, warnings are also clear:
French President Chirac in a press conference given during his visit to Saudi Arabia has said that any "Syrian Threats to Lebanon will Trigger International Response."

French President Jacques Chirac has warned Syria that the international community will take action against any perceived threat to Lebanon's stability through assassinations or supply of weapons.Chirac, in an interview with al-Hayat newspaper published Saturday, said that the murder of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will not go unpunished."Syria should understand that any act that encroaches upon the stability of Lebanon, through sending arms or (committing) assassinations, contradicts its standing in the international community," said the French President."This will surely lead to a response by the international community," he added.

Lebanon's top political leaders are holding roundtable discussions for the third day in an attempt to solve intractable issues that have escalated into a potentially explosive crisis over the past months. The unprecedented meeting between Muslim and Christian; pro-Syria and anti-Syria leaders has so far been described as positive by participants and reports in the media.

Lebanese Leaders at National Dialogue Agree that Shabaa Farms are Lebanese: "

All participants insist on their (the farms') Lebanese identity. However, no
final decision has been made yet," Berri said. He added that according to his
personal opinion, the Lebanese government should take the issue to the United
Nations, while continuing to support the resistance.

Some leaders of the anti-Syria majority, namely Druze leader Walid Jumblat,
have accused the Party of God of using Shabaa as a pretext to hold on to their
arms and use them to serve the interests of its allies Syria and Iran.The other
issue that has dominated the meeting is the country's embattled presidency. The
anti-Syria parliamentary majority has been seeking to oust President Emile
Lahoud, a close ally of Damascus. Its leaders are faced with the challenge of
winning over the support of Syria's Shiite allies, Amal and Hizbullah as well as
the consent of political rival Gen. Michel Aoun.

Newspapers reported that consensus has been reached on the necessity of
ending Lahoud's term. The president's mandate was extended for three years in
2004 when Syria pressured legislators to modify the constitution in order to
make the renewal legal.When Berri called for the meeting he set three items on
the agenda. They are the investigation into former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's
murder, relations with Syria and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 that
calls for free and fair presidential elections and the disarmament of all
militias in Lebanon.The first issue was solved on the opening day when
politicians agreed unanimously to task the government with following up on the
creation of an international tribunal to try the suspected killers of the

An Nahar said after the consensus over removing Lahoud, the participants
agreed that Palestinian groups outside refugee camps should be disarmed and that
those inside the settlements should surrender their arms through dialogue,
without involving the Lebanese army.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem arrived in Cairo on Friday to take part in the 125th session of the Arab League Foreign Ministers Council scheduled to start here tomorrow. Among other things the council will discuss rejecting US unilateral procedures against Syria.

Syria closes EU-funded human rights centre: “A security force came and sealed the premises with red tape a few days ago. They have taken a decision not to tolerate anything,” human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni told Reuters. The government has not commented.

Syria is finally going to develop a public mail system!

U.S. military officials have been quietly assessing Lebanon's military capability, making a general inventory of its army, air and naval forces, and suggesting reforms following a request last year from top Lebanese government officials.

Here is a bit of a Robert Fisk interview:
TONY JONES: Unless the pressure from the United States ratchets up on Iran to the point where there are military threats against these nuclear facilities. Could it not therefore create havoc in Iraq?

ROBERT FISK: Well, you could say the same about Syria, too, couldn't you? And, of course the Americans are also accusing Syria of supporting the insurgents or letting them cross the border. But I think it it's much more complicated than that. For example, my sources in this area, who are pretty good, tell me that the Americans have already talked to the Syrians and are trying to do a deal with them to try and get the Syrians to help them over the insurgency and the price of Syria's help, I'm told, is that the Americans will ease off on the UN committee of inquiry into the murder of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, here in Beirut, only a few hundred metres from here, on the 14th February last year. You know, if the Americans are going to get out of Iraq - and they must get out, they will - they need the help of Iran and Syria. And I think you'll find that certain elements within the State Department are already trying to work on that. Now, we hear the rhetoric coming from Bush. I mean, he's got an absolute black-hole chaos in Iraq, he's got Afghanistan - not an inspiration to the world, it's been taken over effectively by narco warlords, many who work for Karzai, the man who's just been making jokes about the Afghan welcome for Bush - and Bush wants another conflict with Iran? I don't think the Americans are in any footing or any ability, military or otherwise, to have another war or to have another crisis in that region. They're in the deepest hole politically, militarily and economically in Iraq. The fact that the White House and the Pentagon and the State Department seem to be in a state of denial doesn't change that. We had Condoleezza Rice here - literally in that building behind me - a few days ago saying that there are great changes taking place in the Middle East - optimistically. Well, sure, there is a mosque war going on in Iraq with the Americans up to their feet in the sand, there's an Iranian crisis, or so we're told, the Saudis are frightened the Iraq war will spill over into Saudi Arabia, the Egyptians don't know how to reconcile Syria and Lebanon, there are increasing sectarian tensions here in Lebanon. You would think that someone is building what used to be called Potemkin villages, you know, these extraordinary things that Catherine the Great's court favourites use to build, facades of villages, so that everything looked nice in Russia even though things were barbarous behind the facades. I mean, this is a barbarous world we're living in now in the Middle East. It's never been so dangerous here, either for journalists or soldiers but most of all for Arabs. Hence the thousands of people in the mortuary.
Brammertz Expected to Issue Arrest Warrants for Syrian Officials
An Nahar newspaper reported Friday that Serge Brammertz is likely to issue
warrants for the arrest of Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed Syria's intelligence
operations in Lebanon and his deputy Jameh Jameh.
Asad has met twice with his cabinet ministers this week in order to get them to lay out clearly their objectives for the next two years in such a way that they can be held to account for their successes and failures. This is an important step. One of the major complaints of reformers has been that the government does not announce its plans such that it can be held responsible for them.

Le Président ASSAD a souligné la nécessité que chaque ministère présente
ses objectifs et le programme de son action pour cette année et l'année
suivante, en vue de réaliser ces objectifs à travers des programmes exécutifs
clairs, qui définissent les mesures à prendre et les milieux chargés de les
exécuter. Il a également appelé à adopter des mécanismes clairs de coopération
entre les différents ministères et les institutions publiques, à condition de
les appliquer conformément à un calendrier fixe.

Le Président ASSAD a enfin appelé à l'examen des programmes exécutifs
proposés par ordre de priorités. (Sources: Tichrine + As-Saoura + Al-Baas)

Kais, who is keeping tabs on Lebanon, writes about the Zaim meet on his "From Beirut to the Beltway:"
Lebanese are expecting the worst and hoping for the best today, as their leaders meet face-to-face for the first time in years to hash out differences over key national issues. There isn't a lot of optimism in the air, with commentators calling the conference the country's last shot at national reconciliation.

Writing in the leading An-Nahar newspaper Wednesday, analyst George Nassif said the leaders "will either lay down the foundations of a solid national reconciliation or (let the country) slide toward a confrontation."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Is Syria's Economy Improving? Not with Socialism. By EHSANI2

It is heartening to see the recent increased attention to matters relating to the Syrian economy. During the earlier post, Mr. Yazigi concluded his note by stating that “may be the picture of the Syrian economy I am giving is bleaker than what I intended to”. In general, there seems to be a tug of war between the optimists who sense a positive change in the economy’s direction, and the pessimists who continue to express the view that the recent reforms remain inadequate and that the economy’s prospects remain very negative. Let me state at the outset that I belong to the latter group.

What is very apparent is that the country lacks a reliable domestic statistic agency that can gather data and accurately measure economic variables such as GDP, Inflation or Unemployment. The country’s economic leadership team must immediately invest in this endeavor with help from International organizations. Without an accurate, systematic and consistent data gathering and reporting framework in place, it is next to impossible to identify the positive or negative trends in the economy and then design the appropriate policy response. Mr. Yazigi, in the previous post, states that GDP grew by 4.5% last year. What is the source of this information, and is it reliable? The independently produced “country risk survey” for example just published its report on Syria on Feb 18th, and the results are widely different. For 2005, the report stated that Syria’s real GDP grew by 2.0% while its consumer prices rose by 4.0%. What is more worrisome is that it expects economic growth to slip down to 1.5% and 1.3% over the next two years (2006 & 2007). On the issue of financing outlook, the report concluded that “the signing of a restructuring agreement with Russia on Soviet-era debt has cut the value of Syria’s debt stock, but boosted its servicing obligations. Despite this, Syria’s financing position will remain comfortable in 2006, but will deteriorate in 2007 as oil prices and production fall. Did many people know that the debt restructuring with Russia resulted in “higher” servicing obligations even though the debt stock itself is lower? The “Economist Intelligence Unit” published its own sister report on Syria too. Let me summarize it for you:

“Economic reformers will struggle to advance their agenda within tense political environment, and economic growth will be weak, slowed by declining oil output. The economy is expected to expand by an average of less than 1.5% a year in 20006-07. Declining oil production, which will curb industrial output and lead to a sustained contraction of exports in real terms, drives the forecast. The booming economies of the Gulf may provide a modest increase in regional investment and tourism demand. The large number of Iraqis that are now living and working in the country has also provided additional impetus to local demand. Nevertheless, the risks remain on the downside, particularly if sanctions are imposed that compromise Syria’s capacity to export oil. A bar on investment or access to key imported inputs would also push the country rapidly towards recession. On inflation, cuts to fuel price subsidies will create price pressures but low domestic demand will keep inflation at around 4.0% a year”.

As I have stated many times before, the GDP growth rate for Syria must exceed at least 5.0% before the country can “stop the rise” in its already high Unemployment rate. Regrettably, I do not have any confidence that we are even close to hitting those levels. Remember that the reports above think that it will be closer to 1.5% than 5.0%.

Let us move on to the subject of foreign investments. Let us be clear first that most of the numbers that have been cited thus far are merely “plans”. Why are they “planning” such investments while the country faces such a political crisis? The answer is simple risk reward calculation. Most of the land that is earmarked for investment by these projects is currently designated as agricultural land. The current zoning prohibits any building to take place on such properties. As a result, their prices are significantly below market. More specifically, the price of these properties is somewhere between $15-50 per sq meter, depending on location. On the Syrian coast for example, these “agriculturally designated” properties go for close to $50 per sq meter. Consider this now: A similar land on Lebanon’s coast around "Batroun" sells for close to $600. The difference of course is that in Lebanon you can start building immediately. In Syria, the current laws prohibit you from doing so. What these investors decided to do is to buy these properties and literally “sit on them” in the hope that the above laws will one-day change. This is not to say that all the planned investments are in this category but a substantial part is. What is not, is purely driven by the large price differential between Syria and the neighboring countries. In simple terms, Syrian assets are significantly cheaper than those in the Gulf, Jordan or Lebanon. Thus far, most investors shied away from investing their capital in socialist economy riddled with corruption and cronyism. After the recent political turmoil, they sense one of two possibilities; either the Baath party will be removed from power, or that the regime will start to accelerate its reforms. By buying on the cheap, they have concluded that they are being fairly compensated for taking the political risk. I think that it is important to remember this when you think about these investments. Capital is not oblivious to the risks involved or that it suddenly believes the Syrian economy is doing so wonderfully. Instead, investors know the risks and are fully aware that the economy continues to face significant challenges but at the right price, why not invest now when the prices everywhere else are at multiples of they are asked to pay here?

Let us now go back to the Syrian economy itself. Mr. Dardari and his economic leadership team continue to talk about 7% GDP growth in the “future”. I am yet to see a single explanation of how they intend to achieve this goal. At a basic level, GDP is the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a given year. For the Syrian economy to genuinely turn around, the share of Government Spending and production in the economy has to be reduced dramatically in favor of the private sector. Most of the ambitious state sponsored mega projects have been a catastrophic failure. Socialism does not work because it goes against human nature. Humans are genetically programmed to value their own self-interest over that of society. Without maximizing profits as their objective, Syria’s state sponsored institutions have suffered slow death. They have under invested. They have been riddled with corruption as manager and workers stole and plundered from the national treasury. This will continue forever unless the Government does the courageous step of closing down these institutions, cutting its losses and letting the private sector fill the void by taking over the production and sale of the goods and services that it currently monopolizes. Do not believe that any half pregnant measures in this regard can work. A total repudiation of socialist economic ideology is the only solution to Syria’s negative economic prospects. The private sector has been decimated under the Baath leadership. Once state sponsored enterprises are sold or liquidated, the high taxation and red tape that the private sector has been subjected to has to be urgently addressed. Taxes near 63% for annual income of $20,000 push business owners to lie and cheat. It also pushes the tax collectors to corruption. When a tax collector making $200 pays a visit to an established business that is asked to pay such taxes, there is only one conceivable outcome. Unleashing the full potential of the private sector at the expense of the bloated state sector is the only solution to Syria’s economy. Without this, neither Dardari nor the best economic brains on earth can do anything to correct the wrong path that Syria’s economy has been on under the failed socialist policies of the Baath. Once the private sector unshackles itself from the excessive regulation and taxation, it will start to invest, hire and expend. With maximizing profits as their objective and market economics in full control, resources will start to be directed to where they can earn the highest return. The current misallocation of resources will stop. The efficiency and productivity will rise. So will real wages and consumption.

In summary, none of us know the true state of the country’s present economic performance. I hope that there is, however, consensus that it has been on the wrong path for close to 40 years. It is possible that things are “improving”. But improving from what? When you hit bottom in life, everything you do can look good. But is this the correct measuring yardstick? In economics, just like humans, it is best to measure actual performance against potential. When you child scores a D after having few F’s, is that reason to rejoice? Syria has been operating significantly below its potential for way too long. This has had a dramatic and devastating effect on the standards of living of its citizens. Having said this, one has to admit that Syria’s economic mismanagement is not unique. Democratic Nations such as India only broke from the failed ideas of socialism as recently as 1991. China decided to adopt a version of market based economics also only recently after having its economy suffer from a very long coma. In both countries, the results since the changes have been spectacular. Both joined the wave of economic prosperity that their citizens have been deprived of. Regardless of the positive spin or the sugar coating that you may hear, this wave is yet to lift the people of Syria. Planned investments in real estate or other investments may help but will not significantly change the final outcome by much. The only way things can change is when the government unequivocally repudiates socialism, cuts taxes, red tape, cronyism and monopolies and allows instead a competitive private sector to flourish and expand. Of course, a strong legal system that protects property rights is a prerequisite. This system ought to protect every domestic and foreign investor, including protection from the state and its institutions. Monopolies have to be fought and dismantled. Free and transparent competition that would allow the invisible hand to do its magic ought to take over. Till the above happens, this nation will always operate below its potential. All half measures and so-called mixed economic systems would only serve to delay and divert this process.

When it comes to assessing whether the Syrian economy is improving or not, one is left to ponder whether the present system in place is conducive to growth and prosperity. There is no question that it is a great system for a handful of the powerful elite. But when it comes to the vast majority, this socialist based system has not and will not work. Till the regime publicly repudiates socialism and then act like it means it, prosperity and higher standards of living will remain an unfulfilled dream for its people.