Posted by Joshua on Saturday, October 10th, 2009
Analysts are universally positive about King Abdullah’s visit to Damascus. They have moved closer on a policy toward Israel – at least in words now that it is clear that Israel has no time for the Saudi peace plan or Obama’s efforts to get something started. It is not clear whether Saudi-Syrian rapprochement will make any difference to Israel, which can lick all the Arabs with one hand behind its back. Netanyahu just confirmed that Obama has agreed to cover again for Israel’s refusal to join the international nuclear agreement.
Qifa Nabki doesn’t think that Saudi and Syrian influence will be decisive in resolving the deep differences among Lebanese, even if the two countries come to a meeting of the minds on the outlines of a new government. Sami Moubayed argues that Iraq, not Lebanon, is now more important to Saudi Arabia – and on Iraq, Syria and SA are in broad agreement. Peter Harling of ICG is positive but warns “against overestimating how much of a difference reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia would make in a region that remains fundamentally unstable.” Always good advice.
With Saudi Arabia back at Syria’s side and the EU ready to sign its long awaited economic agreement with Syria, the way is clear for president Obama to begin hacking away at some of the economic sanctions that the Bush administration has thrown up over the years. It will be a hard fight because congress will stand against him as it did in his effort to have Israel halt settlement expansion. All the same, with Israel refusing to cooperate on anything, there is no reason for the president to be completely acquiescent to its demands. Syria can profit from Israel’s intransigence. Many analysts are calling this a new era of regional diplomacy. It does signal the end to the Bush era. The great divide between Syria and Saudi Arabia and between “moderate” and “radical” Arab states has been bridged. But a new era? That may be going too far. Rebuilding amicable relations with Saudi Arabia, howeve, is an achievement for Syria, especially if the King’s statements about easing the way for greater Saudi economic investment in Syria comes true. Assad’s effort to pursue resistance to Israel and provide rapid economic growth for Syrians at one and the same time is more realistic today than it was last week.
Saudi Arabia, Syria call for a unity govt in Lebanon
Arab News – 09 October, 2009
Saudi Arabia and Syria called Thursday for the formation of a national unity government in Lebanon. They also backed the Yemeni government in its ongoing efforts to reinforce peace and stability across the country.
“With regard to Lebanon, the two sides emphasized the importance of achieving the unity and stability of the country through the strengthening of consensus among its groups and speeding up the formation of a national unity government,” said a joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of the state visit of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to Damascus.
The communiqué urged joint Arab and Islamic action to stop the continuous Israeli aggression on the Palestinians. The two sides stressed the need to lift the Israeli siege on Al-Aqsa Mosque and confront the measures taken by Israel to Judaize Jerusalem, it added.
Saudi Arabia and Syria stressed the need for ensuring the unity and Arab identity of Iraq and opposed interference in its internal affairs. They supported Yemen’s efforts to end an insurgency that has been threatening the country’s unity and security.
King Abdullah returned to Riyadh on Thursday at the end of a two-day visit. He held a final round of talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad before leaving Damascus, with discussions focusing on major regional and international issues.
“King Abdullah received President Assad at his residence in Ash-Shaab Palace in Damascus on Thursday and the two leaders completed their discussions, which they began Wednesday, on a number of topics,” the Saudi Press Agency said, adding that the talks were attended by Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the king’s adviser.
The two countries agreed to strengthen political, cultural and media cooperation as well as hold a meeting of the Saudi-Syrian Joint Commission as early as possible. They also agreed to expand economic, commercial, customs and investment cooperation, the communiqué added.
A meeting of the Saudi-Syrian Businessmen’s Forum will be held in the first quarter of next year to boost joint ventures while the capital of the Saudi-Syrian Company for Industrial and Agricultural Investment will be increased.
King Abdullah arrived in Damascus on Wednesday at the head of a high-level delegation in what analysts said a historic visit by the Saudi leader to improve ties. The visit saw the signing of an agreement between the two countries to prevent double taxation and avoid tax evasion.
Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf, who signed the accord with his Syrian counterpart Muhammad Al-Hussein, said it would reduce tax burden on investors and businessmen in both countries.
Al-Assaf held a meeting with Al-Hussein on Thursday to discuss prospects of expanding economic cooperation between the two countries. “The two ministers agreed on studying the issue of fees imposed on Saudi and Syrian trucks that carry goods to both countries or pass by them,” said an official statement after the meeting.
Al-Assaf and Al-Hussein also explored prospects of cooperation in banking and insurance including establishment of a Saudi-Syrian bank and a joint insurance firm in Syria. They said the volume of trade, now only $ 2 billion a year, would begin growing in the coming days.
“We have decided to remove the hurdles to commercial exchanges, notably the taxes recently imposed by Syria on products exported to Saudi Arabia,” such as olive oil and ceramics, Hussein was quoted as saying. For his part, Al-Assaf spoke of Abdullah’s visit, his first after becoming the king in 2005, as “very important for strengthening economic relations.” The two leaders underlined their “commitment to pursue coordination and consultations at all levels on matters that interest both peoples,” the Syrian news agency SANA said, adding that they wanted to “remove the obstacles that have hindered their relations.” Analysts said the royal visit would have great impact on the region’s peace and stability. “It was a positive visit and the talks were held in an amiable atmosphere. Both the Syrian and Saudi sides expressed their satisfaction with the talks,” said Waddah Abd-Rabbo, the editor of the semi-official Syrian paper Al-Watan.
“The Saudi monarch’s visit is expected to open up new horizons between these two influential countries, who play an important role in the region and on the international level,” Abd-Rabbo said.
Assad’s political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said Syrian-Saudi relations were making excellent progress. “There is a strong need to create an Arab atmosphere that can utilize the Arab capabilities to raise the voice of Arabs on regional and international forums.”
Read the fulsome praise for the Saudi King by Buthaina Shaaban, here – (in Arabic)
“Why Discuss” wrote this analysis in the comment section:
It is impossible that Syria will go to war to liberate the Golan. It does not have the means. Bashar seems to have opted for a “petits-pas” strategy:
– Getting closer to Israel’s established friends and get them to quietly show Israel that it may lose its few friends in the region if it refuses to return to serious negociations: Turkey is one of them. Erdogan, while keeping his relationship with Israel, is now openly supporting the Goldstone report and has publicly shown his anger to Peres about Gaza.
– Getting military powerful friends that Israel fears: Iran.
– Getting back its rich Arab friends who are close to the US : KSA
– Quietly returning to the international community after 3 years of ostracism orchestrated by the friends of Israel in Lebanon and in the UN ( Mehlis’s politically motivated Agatha Christie reports on Hariri’s murder): UE trade agreement, which is to be signed next month.
Will these petits-pas approach have chances to succeed? Assad is not pressed for time. Israel is, as its reputation and reliability is gradually eroding in the international community and the new US administration, hopefully here for the next 7 years, does not seem to buy blindly what Israel is claiming. The International community is slowly following the US in this respect.
No Chance of Peace for Years, Says Israel’s Foreign Minister
BY: AMY TEIBEL | THE INDEPENDENT
There is no chance of an early solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and people must “learn to live with it”, the Israeli Foreign Minister warned yesterday.
A Rapprochement Between Syria and Saudi Arabia?
By Andrew Lee Butters Thursday, Oct. 08, 2009
Syria has been slowly accommodating American and Saudi positions on several issues as well as opening an embassy in Beirut, gracefully accepting the electoral defeat of its Lebanese allies in June, and restricting the flow of foreign fighters across Syrian land into Iraq.
For their part, Saudi Arabia’s leaders have grown increasingly worried about the rising power of Iran. The Persian and Shi’ite dominated Islamic Republic is both a religious and racial challenge to Arab and Sunni Saudi Arabia’s dominance of the region, and Iran has deftly exploited the divisions in the Arab world by allying itself with radical anti-Israeli movements, in concert with Syria. With Iran’s ongoing nuclear-development program — which many Arab countries suspect is a cover for producing weapons — raising those concerns to a fever pitch, Saudi Arabia has decided it can no longer afford open confrontation with Syria.
But wooing Syria away from Iran will be no easy matter. Syrian officials have long said they would be open to a regional peace if Israel returned occupied Syrian land in the Golan Heights and offered a just settlement to the Palestinian question. But they have also maintained their right to continue Syria’s relationship with Iran and support for Hamas and Hizballah, just as the U.S. arms and supports Israel……
Indeed, rather than distance themselves from Iran, the Syrians recently gave the greenlight for Iran to expand its embassy in Damascus, already Iran’s largest in the region….
Obama agrees to keep Israel’s nukes secret
October 2, 2009
Eli Lake in Wash Times
President Obama has reaffirmed a 4-decade-old secret understanding that has allowed Israel to keep a nuclear arsenal without opening it to international inspections, three officials familiar with the understanding said.
The officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were discussing private conversations, said Mr. Obama pledged to maintain the agreement when he first hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in May.
Under the understanding, the U.S. has not pressured Israel to disclose its nuclear weapons or to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which could require Israel to give up its estimated several hundred nuclear bombs.
Israel had been nervous that Mr. Obama would not continue the 1969 understanding because of his strong support for nonproliferation and priority on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. and five other world powers made progress during talks with Iran in Geneva on Thursday as Iran agreed in principle to transfer some potential bomb fuel out of the country and to open a recently disclosed facility to international inspection.
Mr. Netanyahu let the news of the continued U.S.-Israeli accord slip last week in a remark that attracted little notice. He was asked by Israel’s Channel 2 whether he was worried that Mr. Obama’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly, calling for a world without nuclear weapons, would apply to Israel.
“It was utterly clear from the context of the speech that he was speaking about North Korea and Iran,” the Israeli leader said. “But I want to remind you that in my first meeting with President Obama in Washington I received from him, and I asked to receive from him, an itemized list of the strategic understandings that have existed for many years between Israel and the United States on that issue. It was not for naught that I requested, and it was not for naught that I received [that document].”
…….The secret understanding could undermine the Obama administration’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In particular, it could impinge on U.S. efforts to bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, two agreements that U.S. administrations have argued should apply to Israel in the past. They would ban nuclear tests and the production of material for weapons.
A Senate staffer familiar with the May reaffirmation, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said, “What this means is that the president gave commitments that politically he had no choice but to give regarding Israel’s nuclear program. However, it calls into question virtually every part of the president’s nonproliferation agenda.The president gave Israel an NPT treaty get out of jail free card.”
……..David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said he hoped the Obama administration did not concede too much to Israel.
“One hopes that the price for such concessions is Israeli agreement to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and an acceptance of the long-term goal of a Middle East weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone,” he said. “Otherwise, the Obama administration paid too much, given its focus on a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Syria, Saudi Arabia plot peace path
By Sami Moubayed, Asia times
DAMASCUS – The visit of Saudi King Abdullah to Syria, his first since assuming the throne in 2005, is being hailed as groundbreaking and historic by Middle East observers.
Abdullah, who is married into a Syrian family, visited Damascus countless times for decades, in private and for work, when serving as crown prince under his brother, King Fahd. He attended president Hafez al-Assad’s funeral in June 2000, and was the first Arab leader to visit Syria after President Bashar al-Assad came to power in July that summer.
Relations remained strong throughout 2000-2005, when Syria fully backed the Abdullah plan for peace, later renamed the Arab Initiative, but soured with the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a long-time friend of the Saudis, in 2005…….
….. Both are keen to bring about a rapprochement between Hamas in Gaza, which is backed by Syria, and Fatah, which is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia. More importantly, the Saudis are backing Syria in its current feud with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. They believe Syria had nothing to do with the six attacks that ripped through Baghdad on August 19 that killed 100 Iraqis, although the Iraqi government claims the masterminds were Iraqi Ba’athists based in Damascus.
Saudi Arabia is not too fond of Maliki, seeing him as a sectarian leader who has worked hard at promoting Iranian influence in Iraq at the expense of Saudi Arabia. He has refused to mend fences with Iraqi Sunnis, making no effort to bring them back into power after they walked out on him in 2007, and done nothing about Shi’ite militias in Iraq, striking at the Sunni community in revenge for having produced former president Saddam Hussein.
They are fearful that some in Maliki’s entourage are still toying with the explosive option of creating an autonomous district for Shi’ites in southern Iraq, similar to the Kurdish region in the north. If that happens, Iraqi Sunnis, who have traditionally fallen under the umbrella of Syria and Saudi Arabia, would be left in central Iraq, where there is no oil.
Both Syria and Saudi Arabia are eyeing the situation closely in Iraq, fearing that if Maliki gets the upper hand in parliamentary elections in January, Iraq will slip into more sectarianism, violence and chaos – three elements that could dangerously spill over the border into neighboring Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The more Maliki escalates tension with Damascus – as he has done by taking the August 19 case to the United Nations – the more this brings the Syrians and the Saudis closer. The countries have similar visions for the future of Iraq, once the Americans leave in 2012, and both can fill the vacuum that is expected to arise.
…. Syria is a reasonable, secular and moderate country, which has no history of radicalization against either Saudi Arabia or the United States (with the notable exception of the Bush era). By distancing themselves from Syria in 2005-2008, the Saudis only strengthened the Syrian-Iranian alliance, at the expense of Syrian-Saudi relations. That immediately backfired on Saudi interests in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon.
Far from breaking it, Saudi Arabia wants to invest in the Tehran-Damascus alliance, similar to the situation when most of the Arab world sided with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, the Saudis insisted that Syria remained allied to Iran. Syria had the ear of Iranian decision-makers, and the Saudis were keen that this channel with Tehran remained open during the 1980s.
……. Iraq, for example, is more of a priority for both countries today than Lebanon and so is the situation in Jerusalem, where fighting is escalating between Palestinians and the Israeli Defense Forces. The Saudi king’s visit comes only days after a senior meeting failed to solve pending problems between Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York……
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.
On Afghanistan, I always find Rory Stewart brilliant and fun to read
Syria Fashion Designers Splash Out in Debut Show
2009-10-07 By ZEINA KARAM
Damascus, Syria (AP) — The svelte models strutted down the catwalk in sexy dresses with bare backs and short hemlines — all under the watchful portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his late father, Hafez. The glitzy occasion was Syria’s first ever fashion design competition, meant to encourage young Syrian talents and local products. But perhaps more importantly, it was part of the authorities’ recent efforts to soften Syria’s image and open up the authoritarian country. A tightly controlled nation often vilified by the West for harboring militant Palestinian organizations and criticized for alleged support for Iraqi insurgents, Syria has worked hard in recent years to shed its drab, socialist image and transform itself economically….
EU Gives Tentative Go-Ahead to Sign Trade Accord With Syria
2009-10-08 By James G. Neuger
Oct. 8 (Bloomberg) — European Union governments tentatively agreed to sign a trade pact with Syria after adding language that allows the EU to suspend the accord in case of Syrian human rights violations. The accord, first negotiated in 2004, would cover areas such as trade, transportation and research and development. It parallels efforts by the U.S. to end strains with Syria as partof President Barack Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world. EU representatives in Brussels today endorsed the signing of the accord after reassuring the Dutch government that it could be suspended for human rights breaches, two EU officials said. The final decision is up to EU foreign ministers, who next meet Oct. 26.
The 27-nation EU imported 3.6 billion euros ($5.3 billion) of goods from Syria in 2008 and exported 3.5 billion euros, according to EU statistics. The text of the accord, which updates a 1977 EU-Syria pact, hasn’t been published. Saving the Special Tribunal for Lebanon from failure: a response to Jamil al-Sayyed and Antonio Cassese Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah began his landmark visit to Damascus on Wednesday opening a new era in Saudi-Syrian relations. President Bashar Assad honored the king by conferring on him the country…
Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has switched from a policy of isolation toward engagement. Some hope the warming could bolster US Middle East peace efforts.
“There is an overall positive momentum in the region which kicked off with the exodus of George W. Bush,” says Mr. Moubayed, crediting Obama’s regional outreach for the more harmonious atmosphere. ….
Andrew Tabler from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says, “The Abdullah visit is significant symbolically in that it opens the door for Damascus to move away from an increasingly isolated Iran toward Washington’s Arab allies,” he says. “All of this will just be a photo shoot, however, if it doesn’t lead to progress on key issues, most notably the formation of a government in Lebanon and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.” …
“Yes, the king is here, but the [Syrian] president was in Iran one month ago,” says Moubayed. He argues that Iran’s opponents should use Syria as gateway to the Iranian state, rather than seeking to break the relationship.
UN warns over Syria drought ‘disaster’
By Ferry Biedermann in Beirut
October 8 2009
The United Nations is gearing up to bring emergency relief to north-east Syria, where a severe and persistent drought has forced more than 300,000 people to leave their homes, but the international community has not yet come up with the necessary funds because of Syria’s tense diplomatic relations with other countries.
“Drought is a slowly ongoing disaster and because of the political situation donors do not give money easily for humanitarian action in Syria,” said Mostafa Shbib, of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Damascus.
Syria’s relationship with many western and some Arab countries is still fraught with difficulty over a range of regional issues, in spite of recent moves towards engagement by the US and Saudi Arabia.
“We want more parties to be involved in this problem because we, the Syrian government and the people, are doing all we can but the problem is bigger than our abilities to deal with it,” said Nabi Rashid Mohammad, Syria’s deputy minister of agriculture, who heads a committee to co-ordinate the aid.
The UN is seeking some $53m (€36m, £33m) in emergency funds but has not received any money yet from donors. Mr Shbib said that he expected the organisation’s own emergency response fund to allocate some money next week, which should allow the operation to start.
Personal Reflections on Karim Arabji
By Ahed al Hindi
Following the sentencing of Kareem Arabji on September 13, 2009, the number of openly identified bloggers imprisoned in Syria today approaches nearly a dozen. Arabji was sentenced to three years in prison by the state security court in Damascus. The court’s hall has now witnessed the unjust verdicts of thousands of Syrian political activists, journalists, dissidents and bloggers….