Posted by Joshua on Friday, December 14th, 2007
Challenged, Syria Extends Crackdown on Dissent
By THANASSIS CAMBANIS, December 14, 2007
Syrian authorities this week arrested more than 30 people who had been working for political change, escalating a crackdown on dissent just a week after critics elected a leadership committee in an unusually direct and public challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's authority.
A majority of those arrested were questioned and released, dissidents and human rights advocates said. But three of the most outspoken opposition leaders remained in custody on Thursday, and others had been summoned for questioning.
Last month, government security forces shut Facebook, the online host to a vibrant if virtual debate on the president. On Sunday, security agents began rounding up dozens of dissidents who had been meeting to create a joint opposition front, acting like a political party despite emergency laws that ban any group not connected with the government and ruling Baath Party.
The arrests followed Syria's participation in the Middle East peace forum at Annapolis, Md., which was seen in the region as a coup for Syria and a sign of a thaw in relations between Mr. Assad and the White House.
Emboldened by a sense that Syria's tough anti-American policies have paid dividends, human rights advocates say, the authorities have turned to closing the last channels of public debate.
"This goes back to what we've always seen as a problem, that the opening with the West has never been contingent on Syria improving its human rights records," Nadim Houry, who tracks Syria for Human Rights Watch, said. "It's contingent on Syria cooperating on Lebanon, Iraq and the peace process."
Dissidents and human rights advocates contend that the fact that intellectuals with no political organization, and with many leaders who are frail or in jail, still pose a threat is a sign that the government is weak.
Akram Bunni, a newspaper columnist and brother of an imprisoned human rights lawyer, was detained Tuesday; he still writes in Arab papers of the "moral bankruptcy" of Mr. Assad's rule. "They're concerned about public opinion," he said. "They don't want anyone, internationally or internally, to see that there are public figures who might be an alternative to the regime." …
Still, dissidents challenge the government, disobeying a ban on public meetings.
On Dec. 1, Riad Seif, a former businessman and member of Parliament and now an opposition spokesman, held a meeting with more than 160 advocates who had signed the Damascus declaration in 2005, calling on the state to lift emergency laws and allow free speech and political organization, Syrian rights advocates said.
In a challenge to the government, which prohibits independent political parties, the dissidents formed the National Council, electing a president and leadership committee. The group includes Communists, Islamists, former Baathists and Kurds. Younger dissidents schooled on the Internet have also spoken out, mostly on opposition Web sites and on Facebook groups. Some have ended up in prison, and others, like Ahed al-Hendi and Muhammad al-Abdallah, have fled to Beirut. "They are afraid because people online meet together, share ideas, criticize the regime," said Mr. Hendi, 23, who was held for a month after posting critical reports. "They are strong on one hand, but on another they are so weak they are afraid of an Internet cafe."
Despite contentions that the crackdown stems from insecurity, some Syrian analysts and diplomats say the Assad rule has staved off several crises and now feels strong enough to restore limits that once cowed critics.
"States around us are collapsing and there's a high perception of danger, but Syria is deterring the dangers," an analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government harassment, said. "The opposition doesn't pose a threat."
I am sorry I am not going to this conference.
Monday, December 17, 2007, 12:30 p.m.–2:30 p.m.
Betsy and Walter Stern Conference Center
1015 15th St, NW, 6th Floor, Washington, DC 20005
Wednesday’s assassination of Brigadier General Francois Al-Hajj marks the first act of violence in Lebanon since the end of President Emile Lahoud’s term on November 23, 2007 and the country’s ensuing political impasse over his succession. Despite general agreement between pro and anti-Syrian factions that General Michel Suleiman will fill the vacant presidency, infighting has delayed the parliamentary vote for the eighth time. As the country remains embroiled in a political crisis amid ongoing political assasiations since 2005, could the country teeter on the brink of sectarian violence? How can we understand Syria’s role in Lebanon’s recent political climate? How should the U.S. and European allies proceed? What can be expected for Lebanon’s fledging democracy?
DAVID SCHENKER, Senior Fellow in Arab Politics, Washington Institute for Near Policy
ADIB FARHA, Senior Policy Adviser, American Lebanese Coalition
TONY BADRAN, Research Fellow, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy
China leaves the US and India trailing (Thanks Observer)
By M K Bhadrakumar
Dec 15, 2007 Asia Times
Hardly a week passes without Delhi taking stock of China's creeping "encirclement" of India.
The latest irritant is the massive Afghan tender for copper mines. China has never been a player in Afghanistan in modern history. Indeed, it is a needless provocation on the part of the Chinese to be so utterly fearless of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While India prides itself as a major donor for Afghan reconstruction – building roads, bridges, hospitals, a Parliament building and even, intriguingly, public toilets – China marches ahead and wins the tender for the Aynak cooper deposit in Afghanistan's Logar province bordering Kabul, which is billed as one of the world's largest copper mines.
The project involves US$4 billion in investment by China Metallurgical Group, which will be by far the biggest foreign investment in Afghanistan and is estimated to provide employment for 10,000 people. Significantly, the project includes the development of a railway system linking Afghanistan to China.
Beijing-Tehran oil deal
These audacious Chinese are pole-vaulting across the impenetrable Himalayan ranges with merry abandon in their zest to globalize and integrate.
But the mother of all Chinese encirclement of India still remains largely unnoticed in Delhi – the Beijing-Tehran axis. There is wide recognition that if the United States hasn't been able to push through another tougher United Nations Security Council resolution against Iran over its nuclear program, that has been largely because of China's reluctance to concur.
But what happened last Sunday still came as a bolt from the blue. China Petroleum Corporation, better known as the Sinopec Group, signed a contract with the Iranian Oil Ministry for the development of the Yadavaran oil and gas fields in southwestern Iran.
The current estimation is that the project cost will be $2 billion. Under the contract, China will make the entire investment necessary to develop the fields. The first phase is to produce 85,000 barrels of oil per day and the second phase will add another 100,000 barrels. According to Iranian estimates, Yadavaran has in place oil reserves of 18.3 billion barrels and gas reserves amounting to 12.5 trillion cubic feet.
Iran is already China's third-largest supplier of crude oil, but the Iranians are simply delighted. Oil Minister Gholam-Hossein Nozari was quick to point out that the deal with China flies in the face of Washington's attempts to block foreign investments in Iran. Sinopec merely said, "We are very happy to sign this contract … China is willing to buy LNG [liquefied natural gas] from Iran and we hope to talk about an LNG project later." ….
India is, alas, facing collateral damage from the reverses that the United States policy is taking in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Delhi's estimation that it was always safe to hitch its diplomatic wagon to the US-Israeli caravan in the Middle East region has been put to the test. Delhi must now confront the reality that playing poodle to Washington didn't help advance India's medium- and long-term interests.
The Indian security community lives in absolute thrall of Israel's capability to stretch its long arm and squash Iran. It was only logical to wait for the morning after Ahmadinejad to do any serious business with Iran. Meanwhile, Delhi assumed that calibrating its Iran policy in terms of US-Israeli thinking was simply the right thing to do. Thus, almost across-the-board cooperation with Iran got mothballed. The 25-year mega LNG deal, which the previous government in Delhi negotiated, has become moribund. The latest banking restrictions imposed by Delhi will discourage even normal trade and investment.
Delhi needs course correction
In the recent period, therefore, India put a deliberate distance between it and what it saw as the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas lineup. But that didn't stop Delhi from voicing support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. The rhetoric remains important for its resonance in Indian domestic politics, considering that India has a huge Muslim electorate which keenly follows developments in the Islamic world. The rhetoric is carefully crafted insofar as it sounds passionately supportive of the Palestinian cause and lends itself to free interpretation while it can cause no annoyance to Israel.
Indian diplomacy has a lot of catching up to do. In the short term, Delhi will have to pay a price for overlooking the geopolitical reality that Iran is the only really viable regional power in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Delhi's best hope is that true to their innate pragmatism, Iranians will let bygones be bygones. The pressure will begin to mount once full-fledged US engagement of Iran commences. Ahmadinejad has said, "It [NIE] is a positive step, a step forward … If they [Bush administration] take one or two more such steps, the issues will be totally changed and … the way will be paved for the resolution of regional and bilateral issues."
Clearly, Delhi's simplistic, one-dimensional view of the Persian Gulf lineup, imbued with the vision of the US neo-conservatives – that pro-West Arab regimes plus the US and Israel are fighting an epochal war with Iran – is untenable. The underlying flaws in India's Middle East policy, however, are difficult to jettison as long as the policy remains dovetailed to the US regional agenda. The specter of a Chinese arc of encirclement in the Persian Gulf may just be the stimulus needed for Delhi to seriously introspect where and how its policy floundered in figuring out the Persian puzzle.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
ANALYSIS-Syria faces subsidy crunch as oil exports drop
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
DAMASCUS, Dec 14 (Reuters) – Syria runs on cheap gas oil but can no longer afford to subsidise the fuel whose sulphurous fumes pervade the traffic-clogged streets of Damascus. State finances are already strained by depleting oil reserves that turned Syria into a net oil importer this year.
Economists say delays in tackling the subsidy burden when the economy was in better shape have made the problem worse.
"You cannot put it off indefinitely," said Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau. "And now we are losing the stable macroeconomic framework, unfortunately."
The government drew up solutions two years ago, but has yet to act, aware that subsidy cuts could fuel inflation and spark discontent among Syrians who rely on gas oil to run their vehicles, heat their homes and power their farms and factories.
But it also knows that leaving subsidies intact will worsen the budget deficit, itself a motor for inflation, and eventually compromise economic growth, put by the International Monetary Fund at 4 percent in 2006.
"Either way the result will be inflationary," Sukkar said. "The government also fears the social impact. In countries like Jordan, Yemen and even Myanmar, when they removed the subsidy on heating oil, there were demonstrations within a few days." Syria is a tightly controlled country where public unrest is rare and generally not tolerated by the security forces. The subsidy crunch is a key test of the economic reform programme encouraged by President Bashar al-Assad since he took office in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad.
Abdallah al-Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, told Reuters in August that subsidies would start to be removed by the end of the year. So far prices of the gas oil — a kind of high sulphur diesel –are unchanged, although petrol has gone up this year. "We're expecting gas oil to go up too. When that happens it will affect everyone," said one Damascus taxi driver.
The subsidies cost a hefty 15 percent of gross domestic product, keeping low-paid Syrians above the poverty line but enriching smugglers who sell to nearby Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
The smuggling, estimated to cost the Syrian treasury some $800 million a year, is highly organised. A U.N. mission that investigated security on Lebanon's border with Syria reported in June that it had observed "permanent installations (pipes) for the smuggling of fuel crossing the border downhill to Lebanese lowland".
The Baathist government, committed to a slow liberalisation of the economy after four decades of state control, wants to phase out gas oil subsidies over five years from 2008, but has tinkered with plans to soften the impact on poorer families.
"They were not aware of how poor people had become and how they were incapable of taking any more hits," said Jihad Yazigi, editor of The Syria Report, an online economic newsletter. "The regime knows it has to lift subsidies, at least partly, but they don't know how. They don't have the social safety nets."
A flood of around 1.5 million Iraqi refugees into Syria has added to the burden as they too consume cheap gas oil and other subsidised staples such as sugar, tea, bread and water.
Dardari had floated the idea of cash handouts to families to compensate for higher prices. Another minister, sacked this month for unrelated reasons, promoted a smart-card scheme that would enable everyone to buy a limited amount of subsidised gas oil. Bigger consumers would have to pay market rates.
Syria, whose own refineries cannot meet demand, imports about 4 million tonnes of gas oil a year, about half of all the country's fuel consumption. The state sells diesel at the pump for $0.14 a litre, about a quarter of its import cost.
Plans to wean Syria away from its gas oil addiction by switching big power and cement plants to gas have moved slowly, partly due to delays in developing national gas resources.
Many enterprises produce their own power, with gas oil-fired generators, to avoid reliance on the shaky national grid. "We haven't built enough power plants," Sukkar said, citing heavy electricity cuts in the summer. "Unless we really rush to cope with this, we could have a serious electricity shortage."
Finance for such big projects, which in the past came from Arab development institutions, is harder to access these days. Syria could tap into a regional electricity grid linked to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian territories, but this is a relatively expensive option, Sukkar said.
So far the Central Bank's foreign currency reserves have held fairly steady at $17-18 billion, but these could drain away if the subsidy hole is not plugged, especially now that Syria's oil import bill has outgrown its revenue from crude oil sales.
Syria, never a major oil exporter, produces around 380,000-400,000 barrels per day of crude and the International Energy Agency sees output slipping to 300,000 bpd by 2012.
Foreign direct investment in industry and agriculture, not just the real estate and tourism sectors that have absorbed most of it so far, could compensate for the revenue losses. But multinational investors worry about Syria's political disputes with the West and the U.S. sanctions imposed in 2004.
"There are a lot of political clouds around Syria," Sukkar said, mentioning problems over Lebanon, Iraq and Iran as well as the troubled relationship with the United States. "If these clouds were behind us, things could get better."