Posted by Joshua on Friday, November 27th, 2009
Syria: Has it won?
by Oliver August
Nov 26th 2009 | DAMASCUS
From The Economist
Under its surprisingly durable leader, Syria has stubbornly nudged its way back into the heart of regional diplomacy. It can no longer be ignored
SIX years ago, President Bashar Assad looked weak, stumbling and isolated. In the words of the neoconservatives dominant in Washington after the conquest of Iraq, his regime was “low-hanging fruit”. Its fall would complete a circle of Western influence in the area, with Turkey, a NATO member, to the north-west and Israel to the south. The decline of Syria seemed to hasten when, after it was widely blamed in 2005 for the murder of Lebanon’s five-times prime minister, Rafik Hariri, it ignominiously lost its place as master of its small neighbour. Only Iran, among Syria’s friends, stood fast against the West. Yet now the position has drastically changed. Mr Assad is increasingly viewed as an essential part of the region’s diplomatic jigsaw. He is fast coming back into the game. Even America would like to embrace him.
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent flip-flop of Walid Jumblatt, hereditary head of Lebanon’s Druze minority. He has cause to loathe Syria. Its agents were thought to have killed his father in 1977, a crime that eased Syria’s penetration of Lebanon as a peacekeeper whose forces lingered long after the end of its civil war of 1975-90. Still, Mr Jumblatt reconciled himself to Syria’s then president, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, for many years doing his bidding. But the Druze chieftain broke openly with Mr Assad’s filial successor after the murder of Mr Hariri, an old ally. Championing the movement that ousted Syria from Lebanon, Mr Jumblatt drew applause in Washington for calling it “a country hijacked by a family and a mafia”.
Yet Mr Jumblatt has recently changed tack again. Syria, he now says, is the core of the Arab world; Lebanon is destined to be on its side. If he had once spoken ill of Bashar Assad, it was only in the heat of emotion, Mr Jumblatt told al-Manar, the television station run by Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shia party-cum-militia, which is staunchly backed by Syria and Iran. Only last year Hizbullah’s forces clashed with Mr Jumblatt’s.
The Druze boss, one of the Middle East’s more accurate weathervanes, is far from alone in pointing to Damascus, Syria’s capital. A flurry of foreign dignitaries has recently courted Mr Assad, including the Saudi king, the French and Croatian presidents, the prime ministers of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Spain, and a stream of ministers and MPs, plus a string of prominent Americans. Mr Jumblatt himself is expected in Damascus soon, as is another Lebanese leader with a personal animus, Saad Hariri, now filling his slain father’s shoes as Lebanon’s prime minister.
This sudden popularity marks a triumphant turnabout for the 44-year-old Mr Assad. As a hereditary ruler in an ostensibly republican system, as a member of Syria’s historically marginal Alawite minority, and as a second son with a background in medicine rather than war or statecraft, he looked unlikely to succeed when he took power nine years ago.
His tenure has not been easy. The period from 2002 to 2006 was especially grim. Not only was Syria vilified in the West for its long-standing alliance with Iran, its support of violent Islamist groups pitted against Israel, and its nasty human-rights record. Mr Assad also stood accused of busting sanctions against Saddam Hussein and then, after the Iraqi dictator’s fall, of sheltering Baathist renegades and sending jihadists to kill Americans. Many Lebanese said Syria plotted a rash of bombings in their country between 2005 and 2008, to perpetuate its influence after the forced withdrawal of its troops in 2005. The killing of Mr Hariri, a friend of France’s then president, Jacques Chirac, and of an array of Saudi royals, prompted the UN to launch an investigation that many expected to finger top Syrian officials.
Syria also seemed to face looming economic collapse. Decades of central planning under the Baath party’s stifling rule had left it with few competitive industries and surging unemployment, even as its meagre oil resources rapidly shrank. An influx of more than a million Iraqi refugees, plus the sudden return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian labourers from Lebanon, added extra burdens.
America piled on the pressure, slapping on sanctions in 2003, recalling its ambassador in 2005 and staging raids across Iraq’s border until as recently as last year. Israeli fighter aircraft buzzed Mr Assad’s beach house in a humiliating display of effortless aerial supremacy. The European Union, for its part, suspended talks on an association agreement in 2004, leaving Syria the only Mediterranean country without a preferential trade deal.
Yet Mr Assad’s regime has not only endured but thrived, along with Syria’s economy. Its GDP, its foreign trade and the value of loans to its private sector have all nearly doubled in the past four years, as reforms have tapped suppressed entrepreneurial vigour. For decades Damascus looked as dour as Bucharest under communist rule. Now it pulses with life. New cars throng its streets. Fancy boutique hotels, bars and fully booked restaurants pack its rapidly gentrifying older quarters, while middle-class suburbs, replete with shopping malls and fast-food outlets, spread into the surrounding hills.
The revenue of Damascus’s swankiest hotel, the Four Seasons, is said to have doubled between 2006 and 2008. Bank Audi Syria, one of several Lebanese banks prospering there, made a profit within six months of launching in 2005. It now boasts $1.6 billion in deposits, and recently led Syria’s first-ever private syndication to finance a cement plant, a joint venture between France’s Lafarge and local businessmen costing $680m. In March Syria relaunched its stock exchange, moribund since the 1960s and still tiny. But with new rules allowing foreign ownership of equity, investors are showing keen interest.
Abdullah Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs since 2005, lists simple reasons for the turnaround. By slashing widely evaded taxes and import duties while reducing subsidies, the state has boosted revenue and reduced its dependency on oil. A liberalisation of banking, prices and trade has released pent-up potential in a country that 50 years ago was the most prosperous in the region.
It is not just the promise of Syria’s own market of 22m people. Trade with Iraq, a traditional market for Syrian goods, has surged. Syria is a natural transit hub for the region’s energy exports. In October it signed a series of agreements with Turkey. A decade ago the Turks had threatened to invade; now they can drive across the border without visas. Last month the EU also abruptly signalled its eagerness to sign a long-delayed association agreement, leaving the Syrians to ponder whether it needs revision in light of their stronger bargaining hand.
Many businessmen credit Mr Dardari with crucial policy changes. Yet they worry that he lacks institutional backing. They also fret about the longer term. Flashy new private industries and services outshine the rusty socialist economy that still employs a quarter of the workforce, but they have yet to replace it. The reforms so far have been the easier ones. Pervasive corruption and creaky infrastructure will impede progress. So will a school system that, despite the opening of some 15 private universities, is far from supplying the skills needed for a modern economy.
Free the politics too
Moreover, economic reforms have not been matched by a liberalisation of politics. On taking power, Mr Assad lifted hopes for change by such gestures as closing the notorious Tadmor prison, in Syria’s eastern desert, where thousands of political prisoners had rotted—hundreds of them dying there—in the 1980s. Damascus enjoyed a brief spring of dissent in 2001, but as international pressures mounted, the opening was quickly slammed shut. Repression is far less severe than under Mr Assad’s father, who ruled from 1970 to 2000. But it is equally effective. The secret police remain unaccountable, ruthless and omnipresent. Human-rights workers, bloggers, and members of the 1.5m Kurdish minority all risk imprisonment under such charges as “spreading false information” and “weakening the national spirit”.
But although Syrians whisper about palace intrigues and bumps in the night, a striking number reckon silence is a reasonable price to pay for stability. Punishment is harsh but at least the rules are clear. Syrian society is as complex in sectarian make-up as neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq, and harbours similarly volatile groups, including jihadist cells that the government ruthlessly squashes. Yet it has experienced minimal unrest in recent years. The most serious incident was a car bomb that killed 17 people in Damascus last year. The calm, say some, results less from heavy policing than from clever intelligence, including the co-opting and manipulation of extremist groups. With the exception of the Kurds, Syria’s minorities enjoy a sense of security envied elsewhere in the region.
If Mr Assad’s hard line at home has earned grudging respect, so has his firmness in foreign relations. Rather than flipping on Iran or abandoning ties to Hizbullah or the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, in order to please the West, his regime has upheld “resistance” as the best way to apply pressure on Israel, while offering to negotiate with it. Frightened by the invasion of Iraq, Syria nevertheless yanked the American lion’s tail by letting insurgents slip into the fray. Such nerve, along with Syria’s generous accommodation of Iraqi refugees, improved Mr Assad’s Arab nationalist credentials just when America’s moderate Arab allies looked callow and spineless.
For sure, Syria’s dogged refusal to kowtow has been costly. Its hurried exit from Lebanon was humiliating. Its failure so far to accommodate itself to the new establishment in Baghdad has been expensive too, with Iraq’s rulers accusing it of plotting recent deadly bombings. Israel, meanwhile, clobbered Syria’s Hizbullah ally in 2006 and its Hamas friends in Gaza earlier this year. Israel also bombed a suspected nuclear site in the Syrian desert in 2007 and recently intercepted a shipload of Iranian arms apparently bound, through Syrian ports, for Hizbullah.
The rewards of saying no
But Mr Assad’s tenacious immobility has proved a winning course overall, reinforcing Syria’s centrality to regional issues. As stalemate prevails, from Iraq to Palestine, Mr Assad has slowly regained many of the cards he appeared to have lost.
The case of Lebanon is instructive. Since retreating in the face of a popular uprising against its interference, Syria has clawed its way back to a position of less overt but almost as effective dominance. Exploiting Lebanon’s fractiousness, Syria pushed its allies to undermine the pro-Western coalition that won Lebanon’s general election in 2005. Though pro-Syrian parties failed to end the coalition’s parliamentary majority in a more recent election, in June, they have hamstrung its attempts to govern. Only when the pro-Western coalition, known as the March 14th alliance, frustrated in politics and outgunned on the street, quietly addressed Syria’s concerns did Mr Assad’s Lebanese allies suddenly fall into line. The price appears to be that Hizbullah will keep its private army and that March 14th will not press for the UN to implicate Syria in its investigation of Mr Hariri’s death. Moreover, with Mr Jumblatt now hinting that he may jump ship, March 14th may well sink.
Syria’s stubbornness over Israel, while letting militia allies in Lebanon and Gaza harry the Jewish state, has paid dividends too. The Israelis’ assault on Gaza and their willingness to put only partial limits on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, outlined this week, have made it easier to bring Syria in from the cold. And Israel’s continuing failure to squelch Hamas or Hizbullah has left Syria with some useful chips. It hosts Hamas’s exiled leadership and still serves as a conduit for Iranian arms and money to Hizbullah. This gives Syria bargaining power in its long-standing demand for Israel to return the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, tried to provoke a reaction from Mr Assad, when visiting President Nicolas Sarkozy in France, by calling for negotiations without preconditions. Syria had no preconditions, answered Mr Assad on his own Paris visit, but rather rights that everyone recognised. Indeed, Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, seemed to accept that the Heights would one day have to be returned to Syria.
In the capitals of America’s Arab allies, a sense is growing that, in the light of the persistent stalemate between the Palestinians and Israel, stubbornly bloody-minded Syria has been canny all along. In the past, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been waiting for Syria to come truckling back into the moderate fold.
Now people in Damascus think the moderates may come truckling to them.
“La Syrie est le grand gagnant…” Le Monde, [Thanks Nur al-Cubicle]
As Ankara continues to eclipse that pariah state, Egypt, there is only good news for Syria..
Israel wants to resume Syria talks: minister
ANKARA, Nov. 24 (Xinhua) — Visiting Israeli Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Benjamin Ben Eliezer said on Tuesday that Israel wanted to resume peace talks with Syria, noting Turkey could act as a mediator, the semi-official Anatolia news agency reported.
Israel was willing to work for peace in the region, said Ben Eliezer, adding that it was his 10th visit to Turkey, which aimed to boost trade and investment between Turkey and Israel.
During a meeting with Ben Eliezer on Tuesday in Ankara, Turkish President Abdullah Gul stressed that the Israelis must “prove their sincerity and determination to find a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians,” according to Anatolia.
The National has a good overview of Taraf, Turkey’s courageous newspaper that has been exposing the military’s efforts to undermine the AK party.
Blame game threatens Iraq’s ties with Syria
Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent
November 26. 2009, UAE / November 26. 2009
DAMASCUS // Relations between Baghdad and Damascus have fallen to a new low after fresh allegations claiming Syrian complicity in bombings were aired on Iraqi state-run television.
The damage to ties between the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and his Syrian counterpart, the president, Bashar al Assad, is now “permanent”, Syrian and Iraqi politicians and analysts have warned.
“If Maliki is re-elected as Iraq’s leader, his relations with Syria will never be warm,” said Mohammad Ghrawi, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) chief representative in Syria. “There is always hope that things will improve and that the two countries can function together on an official basis. But they will never be close, personal relations.”…..
Pro-Israel lobby group bankrolling Tories, film claims – Guardian
50% of MPs in the shadow cabinet are Conservative Friends of Israel members, according to Channel 4’s Dispatches
Channel 4’s film alleges that William Hague faced threats of a withdrawal of funding from CFI after he described a retaliatory attack by Israel on Lebanon in 2006 as ‘disproportionate’.
Pro-Israeli organisations in Britain look set to see their influence increase if the Conservatives win the next election, a film scrutinising the activities of a powerful but little-known lobby warns today.
At least half of the shadow cabinet are members of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), according to a Dispatches programme being screened on Channel 4. The programme-makers describe the CFI as “beyond doubt the most well- connected and probably the best funded of all Westminster lobbying groups”.
Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby claims that donations to the Conservative party “from all CFI members and their businesses add up to well over £10m over the last eight years”. CFI has disputed the figure and called the film “deeply flawed”.
The programme also describes how David Cameron allegedly accepted a £15,000 donation from Poju Zabludowicz, a Finnish billionaire who chairs Bicom (the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre). Zabludowizc, the film reveals, has business interests in an illegal West Bank settlement. He also gave £50,000 to Conservative Central Office. Zabludowicz says his contributions “are a matter of public record”.
William Hague allegedly accepted personal donations from CFI board members totalling tens of thousands of pounds after being appointed shadow foreign secretary. More than £30,000 from CFI supporters went to the campaign funds of members of Cameron’s team who were first elected in 2005, the film claims, using publicly available information. The programme-makers say that while this is legal, it is not well-known….