IDAF’s Observations on his Month-long Trip Around Syria

IDAF's Observations on his Month-long Trip Around Syria
For Syria Comment

My Dear Friend Ehsani (who wrote up his own observations of Aleppo in the previous post),

While I fully agree with many points you raise, I think that you also agree that what you described is just part of the picture… a considerable part nonetheless. The economic lens you use is solid, however, one would need to apply a social one at the same time to get the full picture.

I would argue that the grim picture you paint is not the complete one, neither of Aleppo nor of Syria in general. During our three hour chat in the “packed” fancy cafe in Aleppo (which charges $4.5 for a cup of chilled coffee, similar to what Starbucks charges in places like Dubai) we discussed positive and negative changes in the city compared to a year ago. It might be indicative to note that the number of those fancy cafes and restaurants in Aleppo and Damascus has tripled compared to a year ago (they are always packed, despite the fact that they charge outrageous prices compared to the average Syrian income).

This year I managed to get a long good vacation in Syria (around 30 days). In a less romantic –and less socialist- take on ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, I managed to break my earlier record and drove close to 2500 KM in less than 10 days around 7 of the country’s 13 muhafazat (governorates). I avoided “autostrads” (highways) and opted instead for the curvy and mostly mountainous village routes. I can confidently claim that I formed a semi-comprehensive picture of the developmental status through observation and talking to people in the western side of the country (which holds the majority of the country’s population). Those I talked to included remote villagers who were Sunnis, Christians, Alawis and Ismailis as well as urban Syrians in cities including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Lattakia and Tartous. This mini-research can complement the indicative anecdotal experiences posted here by Ehsani and other commentators.

To say that the changes occurring in Syria are only positive would be ludicrous. Similarly, to portray the situation in only negative terms is equally misleading. As expected in any country going through dramatic changes on the economic and social levels, reality is a mixed picture of the good, the bad and the ugly as Averroes wisely suggests. For example, the most impressive developments I noticed were on the infrastructural level. They included hundreds of miles of modern highways under construction around the country. Many are nearing completion and almost ready to be put in service (mostly done by mega Kuwaiti companies).

Similar modern transportation and infrastructure improvements are being undertaken in the eastern parts of Syria including bridges over the Euphrates. In addition, urban planning is becoming more systematic. For example, traffic within the cities has improved noticeably (especially in the most crowded roads in Aleppo, as Ehsani can confirm). There is now a new ruthless traffic law and a policeman or two literally on every corner. Taxi drivers will now refuse to drive you if your refused to put your seatbelt on (otherwise they would have to pay a fine of 2000 lira on the next corner, or pay triple the bribe they can afford). Brand new fuel-efficient and less-polluting public busses are running around the large cities instead of the old fuel-guzzling and carbon-spitting dinosaurs. The Damascus airport is one huge round-the-clock expansion workshop. A brand new train system is now connecting the major cities and even expanding to Turkey. Based on my first-hand experience, the new train carriages are similar to those in Europe (however, the railway is not as quit).

Just 50 KMs outside Aleppo in Idlib governorate, Turkish businessmen are trying hard to purchase every piece of land they can get their hands on as there’s a new Syrian-Turkish Free Trade Zone about to be built in the area. The smart landowners are refusing to sell so far until the new highway is finished. In Tartous, the brand new shiny corniche is packed with fancy cafes and families on picnics. The Dubai-like cafes and night spots on Latakia’s corniche could easily be confused with those in Beirut sea-side. Driving around the mountains, one could not but notice the large number of brand new 4 and 3 stars hotels mushrooming in addition to the smell of the new asphalt connecting the remote villages.

Damascus has defiantly had the lion’s share of the development and investments. I insist that I’m pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness of the touristic neighborhoods in Damascus (including the old city). The city received a comprehensive make-over in preparations of the Arab League Summit earlier this year and in preparation for the “Arab Capital of Culture” year-long festival. Cultural events are packed (Ziad el-Rahbani’s series of concerts with his 50 man orchestra inside the ancient Damascus castle was simply out of this world). The earlier remarks by Observer and those of Ford Prefect are largely representative of the scene in Damascus. As for mega real estate projects, they are mainly taking shape around Damascus and along the coast (as promised Ehsani, I’ll email you some information on the new mega projects on the coast of Tartous).

My point from the above text is the following: Stating that infrastructure is not improving all around Syria is misleading. The whole country feels like an enormous development project. It will take years to transform it from a 1960s socialist Greece, repressive Spain or under-developed Turkey into a clean modern EU tourist heaven. Meanwhile, many painful social changes will take place, including the fluctuation of corruption levels and the economic injustice for those segments of society who will slip between the government safety nets. One notable example is an example based on the removal of oil subsidies noted by Ehsani.

The government announced the removal of heating oil subsidies and instead introduced a 2 level support system: A coupon system where the poorest segment of families will get the oil virtually for free. The second is that each family in Syria (rich or poor) will get one ton (1000 litters) of heating oil per year in old subsidized prices (similar to prices in the last 40 years). This virtually includes every family with a family certificate (daftar ‘a’ilah), which includes almost every single person in the country. A ton of heating oil (which costs around 600 dollars in new market prices in Syria) a year is enough. Every family will pay only $180 instead. You want more you can buy it at market prices. This was also coupled with the introduction of sever punishments for smugglers (up 10 years in prison and huge fines). I drove along the villages on the Lebanon border in Tartous and Homs and noticed an unprecedented number of boarder patrols (”hajjaneh”) on the back of trucks fully camouflaged. However, some segments in society are still overlooked in the subsidies and the government is adjusting accordingly. Of course, businesses who used to get the fuel virtually for free are adapting accordingly which will lead to inflation and increase in prices. In turn this should lead to more increases in salaries until things get close to the regional or global average.

Now back to pollution, corruption and development in Aleppo. Based on my observation, I’d say that large cities like Damascus and Aleppo have been divided into areas of urban development for prioritization. The more attractive the neighborhoods to business and tourists, the cleaner you’ll find it and the faster its infrastructure is developed. For example, by the end of my vacation, a new sewage system was being installed in the higher-end residential neighborhoods in Aleppo, the streets have been widened and redesigned in those areas. A hole in the street would get fixed in 2 days in these neighborhoods compared to maybe 2 weeks in the less touristy ones.

However, I drove in the less advantaged Jalloum and Farafrah neighborhoods in Aleppo and I can say that they are much, much cleaner than they were at the end of the nineties. The standard of the roads is of course less than that in the richer parts of the city. But creative solutions are being put in place. During the last 25 years, has anyone dreamed that the old Quweiq river of Aleppo would be revived after Turkey blocked it in the 60s? The river is now gushing with a relatively good level of water derived from the Euphrates dams.

With regards to corruption and taxes, one indicative example in Aleppo this year is the closure of the largest restaurant compound in the highend part of the city which was usually packed day and night for the last 15 years. According to rumors, the mega businessman who owned it refused to pay the huge taxes he owes the governorate of Aleppo. Other rumors say that he refused to pay the appropriate bribe to one of the big guys this year to overlook the taxes. I believe the truth is in both rumors. The businessman probably wanted to continue not paying taxes and thought he was powerful enough to not pay that senior official the new increased annual bribe. This is probably the case for most businesses in the country. The culture of paying taxes is lacking. One would bribe a senior official with a similar “fee” to gain his loyalty rather than pay the government taxes he owes.

The tax system is indeed broken and fixing it will be no walk in the park. The disgruntled businessmen in Aleppo you talked to Ehsani in the prestigious “Nadi Halab”, will only get further disgruntled when the  tax system is fixed. I still believe that the solution will require a major cultural shift and massive awareness campaigns. If everyone in the country was to know that Rami Makhloof is paying X millions in taxes (even if he wasn’t) then most people would find it easier to adjust. Ehsani, you might want to expand on this?

The bottom line is that Ehsani’s well-thought analysis and observations paint a large part of the picture. Others’ observations complement it. The full picture is not as grim and not as rosy as many of us would like to think. It’s a mixed one, similar to social and economic development everywhere else in the world.

IDAF
[End]

Report: Syria test fires series of long-range missiles
By Yuval AzoulayHaaretz

Syria has recently test launched a series of surface to surface missiles and rockets, Channel 2 news reported Monday.

The test launch was detected by Israel's radar systems, including the Oren Yarok (green pine) and Oren Adir (magnificent pine) radars which activate Israel's Arrow anti-ballistic missiles, Channel 2 reported.

Comments (31)


1. Joshua said:

norman said:

The glass is

half empty ( EHSANI )

OR

Half full ( IDAF )

Syria is moving in the right direction at the right speed but could be pushed along by some of us

OR

Not fast enough and time is running out and the world will pass Syria by ,

I am with the people who think that Syria is going in the right direction but can be pushed along and that Syria is a glass half full and getting better .

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August 20th, 2008, 2:25 am

 

2. majedkhaldoun said:

I was in Damascus in april and may,I fully agree with Ehsani , Idaf is extremely exaggerating, “into clean modern EU tourist heaven.” .
There are good things going on in Damascus, however.

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August 20th, 2008, 3:36 am

 

3. Majhool said:

Whether its half empty or half full, the questions that beg themselves are, have we reached our potential? How do we compare to neighboring countries with comparable resources and population? Could a country reach that potential under emergency law and non-existent political representation?

If indeed there is a problem, what’s the root cause? While some of the root cause is built-in and cannot be irradiated by an executive order (social and knowledge inadequacies), then what isn’t? Is it the dictatorial regime? Political alliances?

I believe regime defenders will always look at the built-in, and ignore the imposed and transient. On the other hand, those who don’t like the regime will continue to link underperformance to regime, its dictatorial ways, and all what comes with it.

All said, Ehsani relies on metrics that make sense. There is no metric that I know of that relies on the number of fancy coffee shops and retaurants

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August 20th, 2008, 5:08 am

 

4. Alex said:

Russia weighs increasing military aid to Arab world

Syrian President Bashar Assad is scheduled to leave for Russia on Thursday for a two-day visit that has been described by analysts as important at a time when Moscow may be considering closer ties with the Arab world.

Syrian media have described Assad’s visit to Moscow as “a working visit” to discuss closer ties in a variety of unspecified areas.

A number of reports in recent months have mentioned large arms deals between Russia and Syria, including advanced anti-aircraft missile systems.

Russian and Syrian analysts have said that Israel’s military assistance to Georgia has paved the way for a particularly successful visit for the Syrian president, whose country has taken a clear stance on the side of Moscow in the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

“The significant military assistance provided by Israel to Georgia in its war against Russia will affect in the future – and probably in the near future – ties between Russia and Israel, and Russia’s attitude toward Arab states,” a Russian analyst said in an interview to Syrian television. “Russia will re-examine its ties with Israel, and it is not unlikely that Moscow will now decide to increase its military assistance to Arab countries in conflict with Israel, including Syria.”

Russia has held up the transfer of certain weapons systems to Syria and Iran as a result of U.S. and Israeli pressure, but now there is hope in Damascus that the situation will change in their favor, and Russia will authorize the arms sales.

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August 20th, 2008, 5:15 am

 

5. jad said:

Dear Norman
Why some people here agree to a celebration level when a negative image describe Syria, yet they questioning, disbelieving and even mocking any optimistic thought and positive news we get from home?

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August 20th, 2008, 5:18 am

 

6. Shai said:

Alex,

It is only natural that Russia will now send clear messages to the U.S., to Israel, and to anyone that seemed to side with Georgia over the recent conflict. Indeed, Israel did sell certain arms to Georgia, and therefore Russia is likely to now sell arms to Syria and Iran. With the latter, I don’t see how that gets us closer to calm in the region – perhaps the opposite. With the former (Syria), I’m actually all for it, if it will give Syria a feeling that it is stronger (and it will be), and if it reduces the chances of “adventures” by Israel towards Syria. Funny that an Israeli should suggest something good about his enemy becoming stronger, no? 🙂

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August 20th, 2008, 5:56 am

 

7. annie said:

I rejoice over the fact that if I am ever allowed back from my exile I shall be able to drink a 4,5 dollar cup of coffee in an increased number of places.

This is however totally irrelevant to the 9000 lira a month policeman. No way he can make ends meet on that amount.
Same goes probably for most civil servants.
How do they manage ? How did they ever manage ? With a little help of expatriated members of their families? On a diet of bread and onion ?

The upper scale coffee shops and the developments at the seaside which exclude the majority of Syrians are no way of measuring progress.

Yet, Idaf’s report contains much positive news. The introduction of taxes, the pollution control measures.

Could we add the fight against corruption ? It is a whole tradition which has to be changed, but it will when the living conditions improve.The problem will remain corruption at the highest levels. But then, we have that in the West too.

The fact that the government is taking into account the poor in its fuel subsidies is of course good news.

Both articles are extremely interesting.

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August 20th, 2008, 6:20 am

 

8. Shai said:

IDAF,

Thank you for your post. Like Ehsani’s, it helps me (and other Israelis hopefully) learn much about Syria, and that’s very important for our understanding of what is going on just across our northeastern border. In order to have peace, I think it is crucial the people of both sides learn about one another, not only what our governments want us to know, but what is really going on. So thank you for that.

Given the levels of corruption and that, in essence, it is no longer something done out of choice, but for most, quiet out of necessity, what might be the short and long term solutions? How do you change an entire nation? How do you start? Because clearly, Syria cannot begin to provide for its citizens what they need, if taxes aren’t collected properly, and if there’s always a way to go around the rules. Super fancy highways are important to a nation, but they’ll first serve those in the upper echelons, than the majority who are struggling so badly. So what are the priorities? Where, and how, do you start?

If there was peace between Syria and Israel, is there a chance Syrians would come to work in Israel, and have a chance to earn 5-10 times as much as they are now? Would Syria allow it? I know many Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians, etc. work in Gulf countries to earn much better and bring back home. Israel might be an option as well, and much closer. They could, in theory, work here all week, and go home on the weekend (Fri,Sat). Damascus is barely 3 hours away from the center of Israel.

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August 20th, 2008, 6:44 am

 

9. Alex said:

Good morning Shai and Annie,

Shai … I don’t see Russia suddenly acting is this childish way towards Israel. It is not like they just discovered Israel’s ties to Georgia.

But news of advanced air defense systems sales to Syria are not new.

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August 20th, 2008, 6:46 am

 

10. ever said:

the reports by Ehsani and IDAF are very interesting. I went to Damascus in June and was fascinated by the new mall in Kafassoussa and new trendy developments in Abu Rumaneh and others places. I’ve not been travelling through Syria during the last years and learning about the changes in the coastal regions is instructive.
Why could you add about power delivrey in the country : did you notice, as I have understood from press reports, that many shortages are causing electricity cuts a few hours everyday?
Thanks a lot.

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August 20th, 2008, 7:22 am

 

11. Shai said:

Alex,

Since America’s plan (and today execution) of placing anti-missile systems in Poland, Russia has had to create its own deterrence factors. Destabilizing Georgia, threatening to rearm its submarines with nuclear weapons, closing deals with Iran, supplying Syria with advanced systems, are all intended to achieve this goal. If made to feel isolated and not respected, Russia might be pushed to the point of creating a 21st century “Warsaw-pact”, which may include some of these nations. No one will like it, but little could be done about it. Is it a good thing, for peace in our region? Probably not. Let’s hope Syria and Israel find a common language far sooner than the creation of a new “Axis”.

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August 20th, 2008, 7:38 am

 

12. Khorshid Khanoum said:

Thanks very much Idaf for the latest take on what life’s really like in Syria. ALL the recent views (including Ehsani and Observer) are actually spot on, even though they may conflict in tone. I have lived here for a year now, and still find it very hard to reconcile good days and bad days. One minute you’re congratulating the authorities on the development of the tourist sector infrastructure, the next day you hear of public executions outside the new Aleppo Sheraton. In general there is a slight sense of optimism, although there’s frustration at the snail’s pace of changes.

Two interesting links regarding the First International Lawyers’ Conference held in July and a speech give by Riad Daoudi on the need for judicial reform. It seems that one of Obama’s advisers was there.

http://www.syria-today.com/pkg05/index.php?page=view_article&dir=articles&ex=2&id=752&First=0&Last=30&CurrentPage=1&src=issue&cat_id=&issue_id=44

http://www.nysun.com/national/obama-adviser-offers-some-advice-to-damascus/84260/

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August 20th, 2008, 7:40 am

 

13. why-discuss said:

Shai

is there a chance Syrians would come to work in Israel, and have a chance to earn 5-10 times as much as they are now?
What about palestinians living in Syria?

Russia
After the Georgia event, and before that, I am sure Russia is preparing itself to build a ANTI-NATO coalition of countries. Many of the ex-soviet countries will have to choose. We are about to see a significant shift in the balance of international powers.

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August 20th, 2008, 7:51 am

 

14. Shai said:

Why-Discuss,

I don’t see why Syrian Palestinians would be looked at any differently. If West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were able to come work inside Israel, certainly Syria ones could, if such arrangements were made. Working visas will not mean citizenship, or right of return. Certainly not in the near future. So it’ll be more about the economic opportunity for all sides, rather than permanent changes in demographics.

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August 20th, 2008, 8:22 am

 

15. Naji said:

This writer always has an interesting and sobering perspective…
سلفيّون في الواجهة
خالد صاغية
http://www.al-akhbar.com/ar/node/87384
تحمل بعض الاعتراضات على توقيع وثيقة تفاهم بين حزب اللّه ومجموعات سلفيّة دلالات غير صحيّة. فإذا كان مفهوماً اعتبار سلفيّين لم يشملهم التفاهم، هذه الوثيقة بمثابة «اختراق» لزعامتهم، فإنّ اعتراضات «المستقبل» وبعض حلفاء حزب اللّه تستدعي التوقّف عندها. فـ«المستقبل» هدّد طويلاً بالفتنة السنّية ـــــ الشيعية. كان قياديّوه يتحدّثون عنها بخبث وخفّة في الآن نفسه. وكان المضمر في حديثهم: إن لم يخضع حزب اللّه لشروط «المستقبل»، فإنّ قوى «شرّيرة» ستتولّى الردّ. والغمز كان دائماً من قناة مجموعات سلفيّة. إذا كان لوثيقة التفاهم من دور، فهي أنّها تضع السلفيّين (أو قسماً منهم) خارج دائرة الاستخدام الابتزازي. هذا لا يعني التفافاً على زعامة الأكثريّة السنّية، بقدر ما يعني تحرير الحوار مع هذه الزعامة من دائرة الابتزاز. غير أنّ «شيطنة» السلفيّين عموماً لم تكن لعبة «المستقبل» وحده. فكثيرون من «أصدقاء» حزب الله تزامن تقرّبهم من الحزب بتخويف جماهيرهم من السنّة عموماً، ومن سلفيّيها خصوصاً، أو بالأحرى حاولوا تقديم السلفيّين كالوجه البشع لطائفة لا يمثّل تيّار «المستقبل» إلا مجرّد واجهة «حضاريّة» لها. وقد تلقّف هؤلاء حادثة حرق السفارة الدنماركية في الأشرفية، ليثبتوا صواب نظرتهم، وأطلقوا على تلك الحادثة عبارة «غزوة الأشرفية»، في عنوان لا تخفى دلالاته الرمزيّة على أحد.
لم تكن هذه اللعبة إلا الوجه المعاكس لتخويف مارسه آخرون ضدّ الشيعة عموماً، وحزب الله خصوصاً. ووصل الأمر بأحدهم أن برّر تقرّبه من سعد الحريري بأنّه يشبهه في اللباس والعادات، بعكس قيادات حزب الله. أحدهم هذا بدأ نهاره يوم حرق السفارة بالقول إنّ الآتين إلى الأشرفية ما هم إلا «حلفاؤنا في 14 آذار»، لينتهي أمام صدمة الواقع وتعقيداته.
مهما يكن الاختلاف مع التيار السلفي ـــــ والاختلاف بينه وبين غالبية الشعب اللبناني كبير جداً ـــــ فإنّ اختزال السلفيّة بالتخويف والإرهاب يحمل نوعاً من الإرهاب الفكري. هكذا قد نتحمّل الإرهاب حين يكون مصدره غربيّاً، ونتحمّل التجويع والإفقار حين ينبع من أفكار نيوليبراليّة، لكنّ حساسيّتنا تُخدَش فجأة إذا ما أطلّت علينا مجموعة تشكّك في بعض مفاهيم الحداثة السائدة!

عدد الاربعاء ٢٠ آب ٢٠٠٨

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August 20th, 2008, 8:23 am

 

16. Shai said:

Naji,

If you and I are awake in the same hours, why aren’t we having some coffee together? 🙂 (Yes, I know why…)

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August 20th, 2008, 8:31 am

 

17. Naji said:

Are you still working for your government, or have you found more honest work…?! There is your answer… 🙂

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August 20th, 2008, 8:39 am

 

18. Shai said:

Naji,

First, why do you assume government work is not honest work?

Second, I do not work for, or with, my government and thank god for that! I think you’re confusing me with AIG… 🙂

Third, don’t be so sure we won’t be having Ahwe soon… I bet we will! In’shalla…

Have a good day Habibi.

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August 20th, 2008, 8:48 am

 

19. Karim said:

Now that Russia is a liberal and democratic country it can be a genuine friend of the Arab people,we should not forget that Russia has a very important Muslim community which in few years will represent 25 % of the Russian population.And it’s good to see that Saudi Arabia will for the first time buy Russian weapons.But Russia should not repeat the mistake of the Soviets in supporting arab dictatorships…the relation will only last if it concern 2 representative parties.

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August 20th, 2008, 10:43 am

 

20. Qifa Nabki said:

Naji

Khaled Saghieh had an excellent piece a couple of days ago about the unfortuante Lebanese habit of scapegoating Palestinians. Worth reading.

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August 20th, 2008, 11:08 am

 
 

22. Nur al-Cubicle said:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denounced the “attempts” on the part of Western countries to “isolate Russia”. “We completely support Russia. Georgia sparked the crisis yet the West accuses Russia”, said Assad in an interview with the Russian daily, Kommersant. “The war initiated by Georgia was a extreme attempt to encircle and isolate Russia […] as the Americans continue their Cold War policies.”

Via La Repubblica

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August 20th, 2008, 1:41 pm

 

23. norman said:

Print | Close this window

Syria to expand military ties with Russia
Wed Aug 20, 2008 5:03am EDT
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Wednesday he will use this week’s visit to Russia to expand military ties with Moscow whose arms sales to the Middle Eastern state have angered the West.

Israel and the United States have long urged Russia not to sell weapons to Syria — a key Moscow ally during the Cold War now at the centre of Kremlin ambitions of reviving Russia’s Soviet-era role in the Middle East.

Assad told Kommersant newspaper that Russia’s conflict with Georgia, in which Moscow says Georgia used Israeli-supplied equipment, underlined the need for Russia and Syria to tighten their defense cooperation.

“Of course military and technical cooperation is the main issue. Weapons purchases are very important,” he said. “I think we should speed it up. Moreover, the West and Israel continue to put pressure on Russia.”

Al-Assad is expected to met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday.

A diplomatic source in Moscow told Interfax news agency that Russia and Syria were preparing a number of deals involving anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile systems.

“Damascus is Moscow’s long-standing partner in military cooperation and we are expecting to reach an agreement in principle on new weapons deals,” said the source.

Syria is also interested in Russia’s Pantsyr-S1 Air Defense Missile systems, BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system, military aircraft and other hardware, the source said.

Russia’s military said this week Israel supplied military vehicles and explosives to Georgia and helped train its army.

Israel says it does not supply arms to other countries as a government but private firms conduct equipment sales and training with the defense ministry’s approval.

Assad, whose army is largely equipped with Russian-designed military hardware, said Israel’s role would only encourage countries like Syria — a U.S. foe and ally of Iran — to step up cooperation with Russia.

“I think that in Russia and in the world everyone is now aware of Israel’s role and its military consultants in the Georgian crisis,” Assad told Kommersant.

“And if before in Russia there were people who thought these forces can be friendly then now I think no one thinks that way.”

The West and NATO have sharply criticized Russia over its military action in Georgia this month. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia was turning into an outlaw in the conflict and accused Moscow of targeting civilians in Georgia.

The conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted when Georgia tried to reimpose control over the breakaway, pro-Russian South Ossetia region earlier this month. Russia responded with a counter-attack that overwhelmed Georgian forces.

Russia then moved troops beyond South Ossetia and a second separatist region, Abkhazia, and deep into Georgian territory.

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August 20th, 2008, 1:43 pm

 

24. idaf said:

Qifa Nabki Afandi asked in the previous post: “Would you be willing NOT to spare us any mention of these things? (Lebanon, Iran, Israel or the U.S.A)”

One of the interesting conversation was the one I had in the middle square of the Grand Umawi Mosque in Damascus with an old Iraqi refugee who was just sitting there killing time. He was unhappy that the Syrian authorities are not allowing his daughter and her 5 children into Syria anymore. He angrily pointed at the Iranian pilgrims visiting the shrine of Hussein in the Mosque and said “but those Shi’a Furs (Persian Shi’a) are allowed in our Arab land without any problem”. It was a sobering glimpse of the situation in Iraq today. Karim, please take note.

I asked a Lebanese Christian tourist in Marmarita (a lovely mountain village in Homs governorate) about her impressions and if she faced any problems as a Lebanese in Syria. The impression on her face made me ashamed that I asked the question. She enthusiastically said in a high tone Beiruti accent “walaau, bel3aks ya 3ammi” (on the contrary). She and her family were getting “on the house” extras in every restaurant after the staff realized they’re from Lebanon.

Another interesting story was the one I heard a couple of times from taxi drivers and shop owners in old Damascus. They were claiming that there are smaller numbers of Saudi tourists this year in Syria. The conspiracy theory was that Saudi government has discouraged its citizens from going to Syria “using financial incentives”. However, they were happy in a way about the increase of tourists from other gulf countries. The rumor does not stand, as the largest number of foreign cars in the Latakia mountains were with Saudi plate numbers (specially in cool mountain villages like Kasab and Slenfeh). Many restaurants in the mountain towns had signs outside announcing that they serve “Kabsa” and “Mandi” (Saudi dishes). Officially, the Ministry of tourism, claimed that in July 2008 there was a 68% increase of Saudi tourists in Syria.

Averroes said:
“2,500 km in 10 dedicated days around the country? 33% of your yearly vacation driving up dirt roads and talking to villagers? Man, you must be either very brave or very single!!”

I’d like to think that I’m both 🙂 I was with a friend though, so not that solo. It was great fun.. and a great learning experience. The amazing kindness of Syrian people in villages made the trip even more rewarding. There were not that many dirt roads, but it was bumpy and I shared many roads with donkeys, cows and sheep herds!

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August 20th, 2008, 2:21 pm

 

25. Averroes said:

IDAF,

I think you did not get my pitch. That’s OK, you’re single. 😉

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August 20th, 2008, 6:56 pm

 

26. idaf said:

Averroes,

Picking up 3 young French ladies who were backpacking near Krak des Chevaliers in Homs mountains and hanging around with them for a couple of days helped a bit 😉

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August 20th, 2008, 7:52 pm

 

27. Qifa Nabki said:

IDAF

Thanks for the update. Glad to hear that relations are warming. And glad to hear that you are such a generous cultural tour guide. 😉

By the way, what are you doing wasting your time here on Syria Comment?! Go back to work ya zalameh!

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August 20th, 2008, 8:12 pm

 

28. EHSANI2 said:

QN,

It seems like IDAF has had a major bonus/salary raise. He did not even blink when he ordered his $6.73 cup of coffee. For all we know, he could be getting ready to retire at such a young age and need no longer to work like the rest of us.

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August 20th, 2008, 9:32 pm

 

29. Qifa Nabki said:

Ehsani 🙂

I, like you, had the opportunity to spend a few days with IDAF this summer, and all I can say is that he is definitely worth the bonus he’s getting.

He didn’t blink when he bought coffee for the BOTH of us either.

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August 21st, 2008, 12:02 pm

 

30. idaf said:

QN and Ehsani,

A really good cup of coffee is priceless. Same thing goes for your company.

However, I’ll email you the contacts of my boss. Maybe you can persuade him that I’m worthy of that raise 🙂

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August 21st, 2008, 2:04 pm

 

31. Qifa Nabki said:

We’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse, Syrian-Lebanese style.

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August 21st, 2008, 2:07 pm

 

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