Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, March 31st, 2010
Kerry’s trip to Syria and Lebanon is a wise move by Obama. It will keep the peace process from caving in altogether. It will also help to defuse some of the anxiety in Lebanon that is being produced by the investigation of Hizbullah people by the Hariri Assassination investigation. I urge everyone to read Qifa Nabki’s coverage of Nasrallah’s long speech about this. A deal on the Golan is the key to prosperity in the region, defusing hostilities, and resolving much of the outside interference in Lebanon. No one believes it will happen, however, because of the many past failures, which is a very large obstacle to overcome.
Kerry departs for Syria, Lebanon
March 30, 2010
By Farah Stockman
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry — who is juggling climate change, aid to Pakistan and Congressional oversight of the war in Afghanistan — plunges this week into yet another major international conundrum: Middle East peace.
Kerry departs today to the region “to investigate the political situation in Syria and Lebanon and the prospects for progress in the Arab-Israeli Peace Process,” according to a schedule provided by his office.
He arrives in Beirut on Wednesday to meet Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Suleiman and Nabih Berri, Speaker of Parliament. Then he will move on to Syria — a country the Bush administration treated like a rogue regime, but which the Obama administration has sought to engage.
On Thursday, Kerry will meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem.
Syria is a key to the Middle East conflict because Damascus hosts the leaders of Hamas and supports Hezbollah, an anti-Israeli Shi’ite group. Also, Syria and Israel have been embroiled in a dispute over Shebaa Farms, a tiny, well-watered slice of land that Syria and Lebanon say is Lebanese territory which is occupied by Israel.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad raised hopes of a peace deal with Israel last month, when he told the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet that a deal could be signed “within six months.” But as he courts Israel and the United States – welcoming Senator Kerry – he is also making plans to strengthen ties with Turkey and Iran to form an Islamic bloc that can counter Israeli and US influence.
Israel lobby presses Congress to soften Obama’s tough stance on Netanyahu
American Israel Public Affairs Committee circulates letter urging White House to ‘reinforce’ relationship with Israel
Chris McGreal in Washington
30 March 2010
America’s main pro-Israel lobby group is mobilising members of Congress to pressure the White House over its bitter public confrontation with Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
The move, by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), appears aimed at exploiting differences in the Obama administration …..
Signatories to Aipac’s letter include Steny Hoyer, the Democrat majority leader, and Eric Cantor, the Republican whip. The wording is similar to an email Aipac sent out during Netanyahu’s visit, describing Obama’s criticisms of the Israeli government as “a matter of serious concern” and calling on the US administration “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish state”.
But while Aipac has for years influenced US policy on Israel, by targeting members of Congress who criticise the Jewish state, it may no longer have the same impact.
Robert Malley, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, said the administration’s decision to take a once routine disagreement over settlement construction in East Jerusalem and turn it in to a confrontation is a reflection of the determination in the White House.
“This episode tells us more about the past and the future than the present. It’s a reflection of the accumulated frustration and mistrust of the Netanyahu government by the White House. For the future, they’re headed for a collision on the pace and nature of peace negotiations,” he said. “We’re seeing determination.”
A source, who is consulted by administration officials on Israel policy but did not wish to be named, said that having chosen to take Netanyahu on, Obama cannot afford to back away. “The administration’s credibility is at stake – in Israel and the Arab world. Netanyahu thought he had the better of it last year after he humiliated the president by rejecting his demand for a settlement freeze. If the administration does not follow through on this, or reaches some compromise that takes the heat off the Israelis, I suspect it will be almost impossible for us to get anything off the ground,” he said.
Netanyahu appears to have been caught off guard by Obama’s stand, perhaps because he was overconfident of being able to bypass the administration by relying on strong support for Israel in Congress. But while Aipac has been able to mobilise support for its letter, Congressional leaders have remained largely silent on the substance of the dispute.
That is, in part, because there is little enthusiasm for Jewish settlements. In addition, the White House has played an unusual card in suggesting that Netanyahu’s intransigence is endangering US interests in the Middle East, and the lives of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan…”
However, there are reports of divisions within the administration on how to proceed. The US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, and the national security adviser, James Jones, believe Israeli governments respond to pressure. Last year an Israeli diplomatic memorandum described Jones as having told European officials that the US administration would take a hard line with the government in Jerusalem. Some officials favour mapping out a blueprint for peace and pressing both sides to adopt it….
The Hariri Tribunal Goes Hunting for Hizballah
March 30, 2010
Last week in Beirut, the United Nations Special Tribunal charged with investigating and prosecuting the killers of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri brought six members of Hizballah in for questioning. The tribunal’s decision to interview Hizballah in connection with the 2005 murder appears to confirm a 2009 report in Der Speigel — corroborated more recently by Le Monde — implicating the Shiite militia in the conspiracy. A shift in the short-term focus of the investigation from Syria to Hizballah will have a profound impact on domestic politics in Lebanon, and potentially on U.S.-Lebanese relations.
Since the February 2005 assassination of Hariri and the establishment of the UN-mandated inquiry into the killing, the primary public focus of the investigation has been on Damascus. Indeed, the first report of the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) in October 2005 “conclud[ed] that … many leads point directly towards the involvement of Syrian security officials with the assassination.” Although no mention was made of Hizballah in the commission’s quarterly reports through 2009, the organization — allied historically with Damascus — expressed strong opposition to the formation of the IIIC and bolted from the cabinet in protest of the government’s decision to support its establishment.
Then, in May 2009 Der Spiegel published an article that reported in great detail on how Hizballah operatives participated in the murder, and how the IIIC had discovered the connection. Apparently, one of the militia’s operatives “committed the unbelievable indiscretion” of calling his girlfriend from a mobile phone used in the operation, enabling the investigators to identify the man. The revelations contained in the Der Spiegel article sent shock waves through Beirut….
For the pro-West March 14 coalition in Lebanon, the allegations of Hizballah involvement in the murder should come as little surprise. Not only would the militia have had the capacity to carry out the operation, its close allies in Damascus had the motive. Members of the coalition had also been at odds with Hizballah for years, and particularly so since the Hariri assassination and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. At the same time, a Hizballah connection to the crime would not in any sense absolve Syria — which then occupied and controlled Lebanon — of culpability. …
Syrians break electronic barriers and government unable to keep up (translation thanks to Mideastwire.com)
On March 31, the Palestinian-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi daily carried the following report by Kamel Sakr: “As the blocking of websites in Syria is escalating, the Syrians are seeking ways that would allow them to overcome this blocking and enter websites which are placed by the Communications Ministry on its “black list” as it is referred to by the Syrian youth. This list includes dozens of electronic addresses for different websites addressing political, media, social, religious and cultural issues. Therefore, the Syrian arena is currently witnessing a heated race between the Syrian government represented by the Communications Ministry and the Syrian surfers who are managing to reach surfers which are beyond the Syrian borders and are allowing them to access all these blocked websites…
“For their part, Internet experts in Syria differentiated between the security facet which they said was a concern for all the states and was handled by specific sides protecting the important data and information, and between the blocking of websites for reasons which are not linked to security motives. However, far from that, the inability of the Syrian Communications Ministry to control the blocking of the websites and prevent the Syrians from surfing the ones which were blocked is clearly revealed by the traffic seen in Internet cafes all around the Syrian capital Damascus. Indeed, an employee at the Ministry did not deny the inability of the government to keep up with the Syrian surfers who are using proxies that are easily overcoming the blocking operations.
“For his part, the owner of an Internet café in the Baramka region in the center of Damascus, said that hundreds of people, most of them from the youth, visited his shop on a daily basis and surfed websites which were blocked in Syria, namely the social Facebook website and Youtube which carries video clips from all around the world. He added that they also surfed other blocked websites such as the Syrian news services among others, assuring to Al-Quds al-Arabi under condition of anonymity: “What the Communications Ministry is doing is not serving anything at all. The Syrians are able to access blocked websites through non-Syrian proxies, such as the Saudi, Turkish and French ones. The Syrians have mastered that and the Syrian Communications Ministry cannot stop these proxies that are emerging every day.”
“The owner of the shop which is always filled with visitors stated that “whenever the Communications Ministry discovers a proxy used by the Syrians, it immediately blocks it since most Internet connections are exclusively secured through the servers of the Ministry. However, within a few hours, the Syrian start using alternative ones.” He added: “A while ago, we used an American proxy. Now we are using a French one and before that we used a Turkish one and a Mexican one. Nonetheless, the most popular proxy in Syria is the Saudi one…”” – Al-Quds al-Arabi, United Kingdom
A Sadr movement delegation in Damascus
By Ibrahim Hamidi
March 31, Al-Hayat
“Deputy Qusay Abdul Wahhab al-Suheil, a member of the Sadrist bloc delegation visiting Syria, told Al-Hayat that they considered Damascus to be a major strategic ally to Baghdad. The deputy was quoted in this respect as saying: “The two neighbors should have the best possible relations. We are visiting Syria with an important delegation from the Sadr Movement in order to affirm our commitment to stable and strong relations with our Syrians brothers. Preparations are also being made for us to visit Saudi Arabia in the near future.”
“The Sadr Movement delegation that visited Damascus was headed by Karar al-Khafaji and it conducted a series of meetings with a number of highly-placed Syrian officials. It is important to note that Moqtada al-Sadr visited Syria twice in the last few years. For his part, deputy Mohammad al-Daraji who is also part of the delegation, was quoted by Al-Hayat as saying: “The discussions that we have conducted in Damascus were very positive. We informed our Syrian brothers about the latest developments taking place on the Iraqi scene, especially in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections. We also informed the Syrians about our vision for the future of Iraq and how we perceived our new alliances. We renewed our well known position regarding the fact that all parties should be included in the new government and that no party or movement should be excluded from it…”
“As for Deputy Qusay Abdul Wahhab al-Suheil, he stressed that the Sadr Movement wanted strategic relations with Syria based on trust and friendship, adding that it was in Iraq’s best interest to have the best possible relations with Syria since they were neighbors and linked by strong historic ties…” – Al-Hayat, United Kingdom
Influence of Islam grows in Syria
Syrian Government is worried about ‘fanaticism’, but analysts blame officials for emboldening clerics.
By an IWPR-trained reporter – DAMASCUS
Mid East on Line, 2010-03-31
International bank appetite for Syria rises
Mar 30, 2010
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS, March 30 (Reuters) – Three major Gulf banks plan to enter the liberalised Syrian market and interest from Western banks is rising despite U.S. sanctions, central bank governor Adib Mayaleh said on Tuesday.
Abu Dhabi National bank, Samba and the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia, have contacted the authorities to apply for licences this year, which could raise the number of private banks in Syria to 16, Mayaleh told Reuters before flying to Paris for meetings with French bankers.
Syria has been under U.S. sanctions since 2004 for its support of militant groups. But relations between Damascus and Washington improved last year, following better ties with former colonial power France, which occupied Syria from 1920 to 1946.
The Syrian state relinquished its monopoly on the banking sector seven years ago as part of economic openness following failed Soviet-style policies and bans on private enterprise under the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963.
“International banks have become convinced that Syria is a promising market. Diplomatic ties with France are clearer and there is a desire to cooperate with Syrian banks,” Mayaleh said.
Asked if Western banks could open in Syria, Mayaleh said: “This could be difficult initially but it does not prevent them from thinking about it.”
The Syrian delegation will meet representatives from five French banks that include BNP Paribas, which Mayaleh said had reversed a policy of not dealing with Syria that was influenced by the American sanctions.
“They are now interested in Syria. This is something new on the table,” Mayaleh said in an interview.
The French-educated governor said decisions by the monetary authorities in January that allowed foreign shareholders to own a majority stake in local banks were a main factor behind the rising interest. Capital requirements were also raised sharply.
Another important reform, he said, allowed Syrian to borrow in foreign currency from banks abroad and repay from their Syrian bank accounts.
“This is a major step toward freeing up capital accounts,” Mayaleh said.
Lebanese and Jordanian banks were the first to establish in Syria after private banks were allowed in. Gulf investors followed and licences were issued to Qatar National Bank, Bahrain-based Dallah Albaraka, and the National Bank of Kuwait.
Among Western bankers who came to explore opportunities in Syria was Morgan Stanley’s chairman John Mack, who met Mayaleh in Damascus earlier this month.
“Mack saw the horizons of investing in Syria,” Mayaleh said.
The government, Mayaleh said, has started to encourage banks based in Syria to finance service and infrastructure needs, pointing to an auction several days ago to finance a $45 million purchase of two French ATR turboprop planes on behalf of state owned Syrianair.
The auction was won by the Syrian Commercial Bank, which is under specific U.S. sanctions.
“We are also looking at a total of $150 million in borrowing to rehabilitate and buy other aircraft,” Mayaleh said.
He said the aircraft include spare parts for two grounded Syrianair Boeing 747s whose overhaul has become possible with U.S. cooperation.
The sanctions do not specifically prohibit U.S. investment in Syria, but they include export licence requirements and bans on dealing with certain Syrian individuals and entities.