News Round Up (12 Aug. 2008)

Middle East expert Joshua Landis sees U.S. policy in the region at a “crossroads.”
Interview by Daniel Luban | Posted August 12, 2008
Right Web,

Landis … describes the Syrian regime as making an unprecedented push to normalize relations with the West. But neoconservative hardliners in Washington continue to resist any engagement with Syria, presenting the possibility that this window of opportunity will be lost…..

Syria is engaging in a major charm offensive. And significantly, they’ve been courting people like [former American Israel Public Affairs Committee president] Thomas Dine to help set up meetings in Washington. This is new! For Syria to reach out to the Israelis not just through the negotiations in Ankara but through the Jewish community in the United States is a potential game-changer in many ways.

But it hasn’t worked—not yet. Where we are now is at a crossroads. There is a moment of opportunity right now to change the entire strategic architecture of the region which could be missed—and probably will be missed.

For instance, we just had a Syrian delegation that came to Washington, and initially Riad Daoudi, legal counsel for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and lead negotiator in the Israel talks, was supposed to meet with [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs] David Welch. For reasons that remain a little murky to me, that fell through. A friend in the State Department told me that part of the reason was that it was just too much for the Bush administration to absorb. Washington had just announced that it was going to meet with the Iranians in Geneva, which had caused a firestorm of protest, and they could deal with only one meeting with one ‘axis of evil’ power at the same time. These are the sort of opportunities that are being lost….

JL: The real debate in Washington right now is about whether you can “flip” Syria, meaning to use the Golan as an incentive to tear Syria away from Iran and Hezbollah. The alternative policy, the more sane and feasible policy, is to try to bring Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah along together.

Hezbollah and Syria and Iran are not stupid. They know exactly what Washington is trying to do, and they’re not going to be flipped, ….

Barak: Hezbollah getting stronger UPI.

"We are seeing a significant strengthening by Hezbollah in the past few years," Barak told Ynetnews. "We're monitoring any possibility of a shift in balance (of power) due to the Syrians supplying Hezbollah with advanced weapons systems."

Barak made the comments Tuesday while attending live-ammunition training exercises by the Israeli military forces in the occupied Golan Heights near Syria, the Israeli Web site Ynetnews.com reported.

In Haaretz, here (Thanks FLC)

"…During the interview, Barak also said the 2006 Second Lebanon War – in effect, carried out to stop Hezbollah armament – had actually strengthened the Lebanon-based militant group.

The defense minister said the the six years prior to the war had actually been some of the quietest on Israel's northern border, despite the growth in Hezbollah's military capabilities.

"Sharon and his leadership were wise not to respond to Hezbollah's strengthening," Barak said. "We went to war unprepared and unjustified."

Visiting President of the European Parliament (EP) Hans-Gert Poettering Monday said Syria is "important and pivotal" in achieving regional … Poettering also expressed appreciation of the development in Syria in all fields, adding that the completion of the partnership pact between Syria and the EU will contribute to economic cooperation.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Thursday he was prepared to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and Syria during his term in office, according to a report in the magazine Paris Match.

Syria's Stock Exchange to Open in 6 Months, Deputy Premier Says
By Massoud A. Derhally

Aug. 12 (Bloomberg) — Syria plans to open its first stock exchange in the next six months in an effort to boost investment in the Arab country's economy, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdallah Dardari said.

“Before the end of this year, even if it means trading on a chalk board, I told them they have to start dealing,'' Dardari said in an interview in Damascus today. “We gave them a temporary new building and the green light to buy the software but then the company said there are U.S. sanctions.''

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Syria in May 2004, including a ban on trade transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria, the country's largest bank. The U.S. government has accused Syria of aiding Iraqi militants and pursuing weapons of mass destruction and destabilizing Lebanon. OMX AB, the Nordic bourse operator acquired by Nasdaq Stock Market Inc. and Borse Dubai this year, refused to sell Syria the software, Dardari said.

The ruling Baath Party, which came to power in 1963, began moving toward a market economy in the 1990s, allowing private banks and insurance companies to operate for the first time. About 25 companies are expected to list on the Damascus Securities Market when it opens, according to Dardari. Ratib Shallah, the president of the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Commerce will head the exchange.

Syria first announced plans to establish the bourse in July 2006.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Damascus at mderhally@bloomberg.net

Lebanese president's upcoming visit to Syria carries tough mission

(Xinhua) — Lebanese President Michel Suleiman is faced with a tough mission during his upcoming two-day official visit to Syria, local analysts said. …

Future TV station owned by majority leader Saad Hariri hosted on the eve of the Lebanese president's visit to Damascus, former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and a number of Syrian opposition leaders who are in exile.

This move was seen as a sign of disagreement on Suleiman's visit, observers said.

Moreover, a political bureau member of pro-government Christian Phalange party told Al-Akhbar daily that the Syrian invitation to the Lebanese president was "not positive, because there was no invitation sent to Premier Fouad Seniora to participate in the meeting as well."…

Syria Opposition Members claim that Syrian security forces have arrested several suspects in the assassination of Mohammed Suleiman, a senior aide to Syrian President Bashar Assad, earlier this month.

 

Comments (145)


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101. norman said:

Shai,

I agree with you and i think , I believe like you , that two party system is better for Syria and it could be better for Israel ,
Actually , I like the system to be the same as the American system of government , a Republic , with two parties , conservative and liberal , with primaries and general election.

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August 17th, 2008, 4:00 am

 

102. Shai said:

Norman,

If a system can produce one 23 year-old Michael Phelps, that wins 8 gold medals, breaks world records on a daily basis, and will probably not be outdone until our grandchildren are our age, then it must be doing something right… I’m talking, of course, of the Speedo Company… 🙂

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August 17th, 2008, 4:07 am

 

103. Zenobia said:

Shai,
you flatterer you.

problem is that if I start the Zenobia Show, you need someone much tougher than Alex in the background to keep things in line (like a bouncer practically), cause you know how I am…
I am worse that Aussama. He loses his tongue sometimes, being a bit unfairly saucy and sharp mouthed. I can hardly scold him given my own transgressions. But, I can just imagine Zenobia’s SC show. It would be worse than Jerry Springer or Heraldo used to be!

It would start out nicely with the civilized people like you sitting calmly on the panel at your mic, behaving yourself, then inevitably, I would throw out some provocative thing (as I am prone to do, from time to time), and then next thing you know….
It would be like a mud wrestling match in the middle of the stage between all the naughty SCers who can’t control themselves going at each other.

THAT would be some truly interesting political entertainment.

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August 17th, 2008, 5:21 am

 

104. Shai said:

There you go… And that, my dear Zenobia, is the making of some great stuff!

So are we starting to look for sponsors? Or do you prefer to wait until after the weekend? 🙂

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August 17th, 2008, 5:42 am

 

105. Zenobia said:

crazy.

I hadn’t really planned a media career for myself, you know…other than that stint with HA’s PR, so… I have to check my calendar coming up for the next couple years … and review all my high rolling cable network contacts. But i will get back to you on that.

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August 17th, 2008, 6:01 am

 

106. Shai said:

Imagine what Oprah would be like, if she had started as a blogger here… So much wiser, so much more “well-rounded”… well, maybe not. Don’t give up – it’s either NBC, or Al-Manar… 🙂 “Ladies and Gentlemen… (or Saidati wa Sadati)… Live, from LA, it’s… The Zenobia Show!!!” (loud cheers, unqueued)

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August 17th, 2008, 6:09 am

 

107. why-discuss said:

Shai

what will happen to all of these refugees?

This is Israel’s and the UN’s problem( especially the countries who recognize and supported Israel) as they are directly responsible for the eviction of the palestinians to create the state of Israel and the present situation of the refugees. Syria is showing itself human and helpful in accepting the refugees in their land, I am not sure Lebanon , with a smaller population, a sensitive religious balance and the memory of the 1975 civil war partly triggered by the palestinians will be as understanding. I have already suggested the solution I believe is the most reasonable but hard to achieve:
– Israel and the countries recognizing Israel under the UN should find a pool of host countries that are willing to accept palestinian refugees
– Israel should compensate the palestinians financially for their loss and for their acceptance of not claiming their homeland anymore.
-Palestinians should be offered a package deal, money and a choice of countries to relocate.
-Many married with lebanese be granted the lebanese nationality as well as their children togther with a compensation package.
Others with family in the west bank or Gaza will return there.

Of course all that has to be part of a comprehensive peace with exchange of land to make Palestinian state less than a gruyere cheese and more like a viable country.

QN

Concerning the Syria-Isreal negotiations. Now that Lebanon seems less antagonistic to Syria and the ghost of the international tribunal on Hariri fading in the unknown future, I am sure there are already talks at high level to have Lebanon entering in any package deal with Israel. As Shai mentionned it , the peace with Lebanon that should include the fate of the palestinian refugees in lebanon is a much more complex issue and Syria will probably ask for a high price to have this included in the peace negotiations (Already some part has been paid with the Doha accord, stripping greatly the anti-resistance pro US groups of their real power). I am forecasting more to come in terms of Lebanon granting more rights and attention to Syria.
Lebanon has no choice. They have no card to play in front of Israel to get any tangible results, other than Hezbollah’s weapons and their newly revived alliance with Syria. I guess they know that by now and are trying to court Syria to include Lebanon into the eventual peace deal. The game is now again in Syria’s hand this time without the need of mokahbarat and military presence.

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August 17th, 2008, 9:08 am

 

108. Shai said:

Why-Discuss,

Thank you for the response. I tend to agree i about the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and hope that a solution like that will be found. Still, that is a lot of people (I believe 400,000-500,000) to take care of. If we are all smart (Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, the U.S., etc.) we can market a comprehensive peace as something that starts with Syria, being a well-positioned key player that can positively influence all parties involved, and that can bring about the desperately needed peace and stability in the region. Syria is willing to play that role, and we should all take advantage of that, while the opportunity exists. Let us remember, that windows of opportunity have a tendency to not only open up, but also close. We mustn’t miss this one. If we do, we may all pay a very dear price in yet another regional war that will form as a result of frustration and stagnation.

Let’s hope our leaders tend to visit blogs like these every so often, or at least tend to use their brains also for long-term thinking, not only short-term one.

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August 17th, 2008, 10:33 am

 

109. norman said:

Shai,

I think that all the cards are in Israel Hands ,

Again , what will it be war or peace?.

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August 17th, 2008, 12:37 pm

 

110. Shai said:

Norman,

I don’t know. I’m hoping that Bibi will opt for peace. I don’t see anyone else delivering it, besides him. They’re now saying that even if Tzipi Livni wins the primaries in Kadima next month, she will immediately opt for general elections, rather than try to put together a coalition government. To me, that says she’s not yet made of leadership material. Even if she believes Kadima will receive many of Labor’s seats in the next election, and hence become a stronger party, surely she must also realize that the Likud will win, and Bibi will become PM. So she’ll be Nr. 2 and, at best, remain Foreign Minister under Bibi. Is that what she is hoping for? What about leading Israel as Prime Minister? Is that not her ultimate goal? And, she could at least try to achieve that, without elections (!), by putting together a coalition. If she doesn’t even try, she will disappoint me terribly, and I doubt I’d vote for her in the future.

All things considered, Bibi still looks like the only choice. If he’s changed for the better, he’ll make peace with Syria and then with the entire Arab world (and of course the Palestinians). If he still believes in “How the West Can Win”, then we’re off to war…

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August 17th, 2008, 1:34 pm

 

111. Shai said:

Ha’aretz article on Egypt/KSA’s role in the region (or lack thereof): http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1012184.html

And here’s the foolish release of prisoners to our puppet, Abbas:
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1012376.html

Instead, Israel should be talking to Hamas, and releasing 200 prisoners as a sign of good will. When will we understand that taking a nice Palestinian guy (Abbas), giving him money, and weapons, and providing him security, and then asking him to sit across from us at the negotiation table and act as our enemy, just doesn’t work…! The worse the enemy, the sweeter the peace.

And, from Iran:
http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3583784,00.html

I can’t understand Iran’s policy. If this is like Nikita Khrushchev’s “we’re producing missiles like sausages” arrogance, then it’s only tempting the West to call their bluff. If it’s true, then why boast about it? The more they reveal their offensive strategic capabilities, the more likely they’ll be attacked by Israel and/or the U.S. How can it be that they’re interested in being attacked? Do they seek the legitimacy to one day use a nuke on Tel-Aviv? And they’re willing to pay a heavy price to earn this? Can anyone explain this policy? There must be some rationale behind it, even if I can’t see it.

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August 17th, 2008, 2:14 pm

 

112. Off the Wall said:

Norman
The news about the housing association is rather big. In fact very big. This is the first time I know of a Syrian court annuls a decision by the executive branch. As such it is a good indication and a wonderful precedent. Of course I have no idea about the actual case, but the fact that the Judicial branch is finding some bone is a good start.

Funny it came from a case initiated by Expats. But I think expats and more likely to challenge the un-natural status quo and do exactly what I have been talking about, which is forcing the Judicial branch to be what it is meant for. May be others will take notice and recognize that the are means to redress issues that do not involve carnage.

Shai
On the note in Ynet. Which constitution is the MB referring to, the 1973 or the 1956. The two are quite different with respect to the legitimacy of the current Syrian government. Under the 1973, and its modification (which by the way was constitutional since the Parliament has the right to amend the constitution),

Article 149 [Initiative, Majority]

(1) The President of the Republic as well as a two-thirds majority of the People’s Assembly members have a right to propose amending the Constitution.
(2) The amendment proposal includes the provisions to be amended and the reasons for it.
(3) Upon receipt of the proposal, the People’s Assembly sets up a special committee to investigate it.
(4) The Assembly discusses the amendment proposal, and if approved by a two-thirds majority of its members, the amendment is considered final, provided it is approved by the President of the Republic. It will then be included in the body of the Constitution.

And this is exactly what happened after the death of Hafez. Khaddam, (the acting president) asked the assembly to amend the constitution and reduce the mandatory age of the president from 40 to 35, the motion was constitutional and Assad was elected from the Baath party and subsequently nominated by the assembly for referendum, which he has won as well as his renewal. I have a feeling that in the first case, the populace wanted to maintain stability and continuity so a majority (not necessarily the 96% announced) may have truly voted yes on the referendum. In the term renewal referendum, the public, and again, a majority, were likely to stand by the president given the external pressures that were mounting then.

In conclusion:
Whether one agrees or not with the constitution. The Syrian government is constitutional. While some may not like the ability to customize the constitution. The act in itself was constitutional. Of course, practices and acts of any government can be constitutional as well as unconstitutional, it would take the Judicial and Legislative branches to correct these practices. I am not making a personal character judgment about the Syrian government, all I am saying is that one has to be careful in throwing words around. The MB can not argue that the election is unconstitutional, but they can argue that the constitution is not a modern one and a pluralistic one. Had that been their argument, it would have been more honest.

This brings a major challenge to the notion of American sponsored regime change in Syria (Iraqi style). Internationally, such would be an outright violation with less ambiguity than Iraq’s case. The constitutionality of the Syrian government makes it harder to argue for regime change only because the Neocons do not like it. And in fact, you can see the way the US deals with Syrian opposition by indicating to them that the ultimate demand is “to change behavior” not a regime change for the neocons do not have a shred of argument regarding the legality of government from a constitutional stand point. Arguments about human rights and freedom of expression are different matters that we have discussed before, but not exhaustively.

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August 17th, 2008, 4:44 pm

 

113. Off the Wall said:

Why Discuss

Thank you for the proposal. I fully agree that Palestinian Refugees in syria are much better integrated into society than those in Lebanon. This in fact is the hardest part of any negotiation between Israel and Lebanon. Syria would not suffer in any way by granting all of Its own Palestinian refugees full citizenship for after all, all what is missing is the title of (or the adjustment of legal status) from refugee to a Citizen. I think ths same thing applies to Jordan.

Lebanon has to tread that issue much more carefully, but I do not think it is undoable. Your start with those married to lebanese is an excellent start, but I am afraid it is not sufficient. To begin with, a settlment that reliniquish the right of returen is already taking away one of their choices. So by forcing them with a packaged deal to emigrate once more to am unfamiliar country withoug the possibility of remaining, if they chose to stay in lebanon, strikes me as a bad deal. Can we think of a solution which gives them a choice (at personal level).

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August 17th, 2008, 5:01 pm

 

114. norman said:

OTW,

Do you think that if any of the Palestinians is given the choice between going back to Palestine or migrating to the US , Canada or Australia they would rather stay in Lebanon or go back to Palestine , I think that most of them would rather migrate away from the Mideast.

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August 17th, 2008, 5:54 pm

 

115. Off the Wall said:

NORMAN

I fully agree with your comment, but the only way to know is to guarantee that they do have such a choice. Forced relocation even of a 100 out of 500,000 is immoral, and it breaks ones heart to see them, once more, being shuttled across the globe against their will.

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August 17th, 2008, 6:01 pm

 

116. Off the Wall said:

Dear Shai

I think the Iranians should just “shut up” for now and enjoy the reprieve provided to them curtsy Georgia and Russia.

The article in HAARETZ is as usual a good one. It seems that “Brand” Syria, with its “yes-but, no-but” had the ability to penetrate beyond the surface of events because of this skepticism. This is funny as Syria’s entire expenditure on think-tanks is probably less than the budget of a minor neo-con think tank.

I also noticed a recent interview with Sari Nusseighbeh, which I will be reading in few moments and I hope to discuss later.

One could not help but to realize that history will finally recognize little Georg as a transformer (my be same as in the movie 🙂 ) not only of the ME but also of the globe. By insisting on using might and power to accomplish a selfish stupid act such as removing Saddam, he has practically initiated the beginning and the end of the US hegemony in the region with one stroke. Furthermore, significant transformations are occurring daily in South America which is hailing the emergence of new approach to “fair and humane democracy”. China is flexing its muscles, not militarily but economically and soon “culturally” which will probably carry wider implications as to the pragmatism of the form of government that can bring rapid economic prosperity with slow or stagnant progress on human rights (I do not like that, but it is happening). Russia is finding the courage to finally say No and to bush pack, and regional players, who are accurately reading the writing on the wall are beginning to take their rightful place after being sidelined for decades. Is Israel capable of reading the new realities, which clearly dictate that military might is not a guarantee of hegemony and that the region will never be dominated by a single power, not from the inside or from the outside. I think it may be so and we will know more in the next few months.

While I do not subscribe to the notion that Israel wants to dominate the region, realities on the ground demonstrate that as a Soverign state, the country has been rleying heavily on the military and technological parity to force her own vision of “acceptable” future at the expense of others’ basic rights to security and stability. One would hope that the new initiatives, and that Turkey’s sincere efforts would carry the day and lead to a new ME, free of WMDs, and ready to jump into the world stage and to assert its regional rights against both internal and external threats.

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August 17th, 2008, 6:02 pm

 

117. Shai said:

OTW, Norman,

This is a very important point, which we in Israel must also understand. Maybe I should have stressed it in my response to Why-Discuss. There’s no doubt that you cannot uproot half a million people yet again from their homes. Yes, if offered an opportunity to emigrate to the West, I’m sure many refugees, perhaps even most, would choose to do so. But they cannot be forced to leave Lebanon. Their tragedy of 60 years ago cannot be followed by another modern-day tragedy involving a forced transfer anywhere. Having said that, I fully understand the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, and the real concerns of the Lebanese people. But surely even they could not consider half a million people as “temporary residents”, with “temporary” meaning 60 years!

What I’m hoping will happen, is that the kind of financial compensation to each and every Palestinian refugee throughout the region will be such, that every host nation will very much opt to keep, for pure economic interest. That is, if for instance each family received the equivalent of $450,000 (what Israeli settlers received in Gaza), that may be more than sufficient to enable every family a “fresh start”. And, the host nation might be very happy to have that kind of money invested in it, instead of taken out. Such compensation will influence the real-estate market, new businesses, job market, etc. If invested inside the host nation, it will create much more income, and will prove a sufficient economic reason to enable the refugees to become full citizens, I believe.

Any thoughts on this?

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August 17th, 2008, 6:05 pm

 

118. trustquest said:

Doing Business in Syria:

Population: 19,496,430. GNI per capita (US$): 1,570.00
Ease of doing business recent report:
First column is Ease of doing Business, second is doing business rank in 2008, third is doing business rank in 2007 and the last is the change in rank:
Doing business,(137), (134), (-3)
Starting business,(169), (148), (-21)
Dealing with license,(86), (83), (-3)
Employing workers,(126), (98), (-28)
Registering property,(89), (87 ), (-2)
Getting credit,(158), (156), (-2)
Protecting investors, (107), (105), (-2)
Paying taxes, (98), (97), (-1)
Trading across borders, (127), (119), (-8)
Enforcing contracts, (171), (171), (0)
Closing business, (77), (77), (0)

Not only they ranked from average but also Syria ranked low in most criteria comparing other countries in the region.

Graph of ease of doing business – global rank

Singapore 1
Israel 29
Turkey 57
UAE 68
Jordan 80
Lebanon 85
Syria 137
Well done Israel and Lebanon and for Syria we hope for better days.

ref:http://www.doingbusiness.org/Documents/CountryProfiles/SYR.pdf

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August 17th, 2008, 6:09 pm

 

119. Shai said:

OTW,

Russia warned the U.S. when it supported Kosov’s independence that it was creating a precedent. The U.S. claimed that any independent province, that has been overrun by a large army that uses ethnic cleansing, deserves the right to secede and become fully independent. Now, Russia is claiming the same has happened in the two provinces, where the Georgian army used ethnic cleansing. The roles are reversed, and now Russia is backing the underdog. Won’t be so easy for the U.S. to get Russian troops out. And of course placing missiles in Poland won’t exactly encourage Russia to comply with U.S. demands. Seems we are experiencing some Cold War aftershocks… let’s hope only that.

As for Israel reading the map correctly, I’m afraid to say that we don’t have a great record in doing so. I’m not terribly optimistic, and I’m hoping that at least we’ve been put on some course (by Syria, Turkey, or the U.S.) from which it will be difficult to get out. I hope things will happen fast enough, so that no trigger-happy general here (or in the U.S.) will have a chance to go on wild adventures any time soon. But, as you may have read in my comments above, it looks like at least Tzipi Livni won’t be assisting us very much, when it comes to pushing for peace with Syria. If she’s not going to be PM, she won’t be able to run the show…

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August 17th, 2008, 6:20 pm

 

120. Off the Wall said:

Dear TRUSTQUEST
Excellent and reasonably good detailed study and neutral, thank you for posting it. If one puts the pessimistic hat on, it is rather depressing and hopeless. But looking deeper into the study and especially at the very creative GANTT charts showing the duration and cost of each task (procedure), the solutions seem easier than one might think. Across the board, obtaining approvals, or registering with a government agency are always the longest and most consuming parts of the process. As such administrative reforms, which include training, computerization of record and cutting down red-tape within one or more agencies would substantially improve the performance and rank.

Take for example the chart on page 10 (page 15 in the pdf file), the two longest but not most costly procedures are (3 and 11)

3. Register with the Ministry of Supply and Interior Trade
11. Register for tax

Another problem that is clearly identifiable from that chart is the fact the process is near fully serial nature of the process with every step being a milestone where even starting the subsequent step depends on the successful completion of its predecessors. Except for procedures 7 and 8

7. Make payment to the Syrian Bar Association
8. Publication in the Official Gazette

But that is the end of it, because procedure 9 (Return to the Court to complete incorporation)
can not start until 7 is completed. Clearly, and in this case, without even reforming the entire process (i.e. keeping all 13 steps) fundamental reforms in the Ministry of Supply and Interior Trade (Tamween wa Tijara Dakhilyyah) as well as in the Tax registration process (Finance or Mallyyah), will go long ways in improving Syria’s performance on entrepreneurship.

Now, take for example the (property registration) chart on page 24, (page 29 in the pdf file). The fact that the numbers of steps is minor (5 steps) does not help much. Again, we see that of the procedures, registering and approval by the ministry of finance are both the most time consuming steps.

This is the stuff and the type of studies that can adequately point decision makers to bottlenecks hindering economic progress in areas they have been advocating for the past 7 years. I do not read such studies politically, I try to read them with the mentality of a system’s engineer (although I am not one). Needless to say, anyone who knows bureaucracy recognizes that most of the task duration is spent as the file is transiting from one approval, archival, or documentation step to another, but I think areas which can result in the most substantial gains for the least cost are somehow clear and they include among other things the following:

1. Decentralize the process and remove the ministries from the approval process for businesses below certain size and have them focus on policy instead of record keeping

2. Provide local authorities with the mandate to approve projects of small to medium size and facilitate sharing of archive and documentation from local to national level by creating computerized Data-bases

3. Reduce the transit time by reducing the number of required signatures

Clearly, most important issue would be to conduct internal audits by experts of the most time consuming steps and split them into yet smaller steps (i.e., multi-signatures and duplicate approvals within each ministry). Based on such audits, these procedures can be reformed and streamlined. This is not a matter of making a law allowing investment, this is mostly a managerial issue, which of course does not reduce its significant impact on the economy and the livelihood of Syrian citizens. By the way, this does not make the government’s job any easier, commitment to reform must be demonstrated by addressing these bottlenecks, which are also present in non-commercial affairs.

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August 17th, 2008, 7:03 pm

 

121. Shai said:

OTW,

Good thing we’re not enemies. I’d hate to meet your analytic skills on the battlefield. Wait a minute… we ARE enemies! Doe!… 🙂 (it’s late – I better head in before my Simpsons humor kills someone… of boredom…)

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August 17th, 2008, 7:24 pm

 

122. Off the Wall said:

SHAI
What scares me is that the with the US having established the Kosovo precedent under Clinton, democrats in the US are taking a stance on the issue that is similar if not worst than that taken by the hawks in the administration. With only few exceptions, which include a strange compilation of far left and libertarians and far right (i.e., Pat Buchannan), most political analysts here are ignoring Georgia’s aggression against Ossetia civilians and calling the entire debacle the Russian invasion and by that setting the stage for transforming the events from a minor military incursion with defined objectives into a new cold war. Take for example the foolish announcement earlier today by Germany advocating Georgia’s case for NATO membership, and contrast that with Turkey’s announcement of trying to work with all the regional players in the region to prevent similar events.

The US has been establishing precedents in rather thoughtless manners. This will be the legacy of the neo-cons. In the past, only developing countries argued that the US and the West are rather hypocritical, but now, that hypocrisy has given the eastern bears (the Russian grizzly bear and the Chinese Panda bear) a chance to counter attack. Now, if the US argued against the independence of the two autonomous regions of Georgia, China will have a ball as it can make the same argument vis a vis Taiwan. It is called blow-back effect, and we have seen it almost everywhere where the US and its allies get their hands into someone else’s affairs.

I am saddened by your comment regarding Israel’s inability to read the new realities for such inability will be costly and will result in continuing mindless loss of blood and treasures. Yet, one would hope that whatever postures we are now seeing are more electoral postures than real plans for action. I, like you, hope that things will move too fast to allow anyone to backtrack. Let us hope that politicians will get locked onto the peace path. And let us hope that even with that, they will be wise enough not to rush into making choices that can not be accepted by their constituents or force their adversaries into doing the same. This will only lead to further confusion as we have seen in the aftermath of Oslo.

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August 17th, 2008, 7:39 pm

 

123. Off the Wall said:

Dear SHAI

Thanks, I would love to put both of our analytic skills in the service of the welfare of our extended Semitic family, and later, the world (I am a humanist, but it doesn’t hurt to start with the family).

I have a feeling that you and I are incapable of being enemies. While others fight, we may be discussing philosophy or Homer (not the guy who wrote the Iliad 🙂 ). Of course I do not doubt your patriotism to your country, but I find your grasp of that patriotism refreshing and hope that It would be infectious not only in Israel but also in the entire region.

By the way, I just tried Homer’s voice on one of my navigation softwares, (TOMTOM). It was hilarious.

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August 17th, 2008, 7:45 pm

 

124. Shai said:

OTW,

Agree with every word. In a way, this is why I may prefer Netanyahu in power. If we’re going to have peace soon, let him deliver it, as he will definitely win the support of most Israelis. And if we’re heading in the opposite direction (towards another regional confrontation), let it also be the Likud that later gets blamed for its arrogant view of our neighbors in the region. Either way, Israelis will choose peace soon, or after a failed conservative administration. The Left or Center will not be able to do it. And we already see how Olmert’s fiasco in Lebanon is essentially forgiven or forgotten. Time to let the Right try… (opposite of what should now occur in the U.S.)

And you’re right. We could not be enemies. Ever.

Good Night! (wish I had some Duff beer right about now…)

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August 17th, 2008, 7:50 pm

 

125. Off the Wall said:

Shai
Good night.

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August 17th, 2008, 8:57 pm

 

126. trustquest said:

OTW,
Thanks for the analysis, you have put a positive spin on a very grim report, however I hope someone will take notice of your points. I liked the fact that the index cover annual changes and it provides a weapon for the argument that support a previous report which states that the only chance for the micro-economic changes to happen in these states are to adopt free speech and expression to flare the knowledge and the critical thinking to be the currency of new society.

An optimistic comment can light a candle, thanks. But still criticizing the continuous failure in administering change till now is past due also. Decentralizing calls and empowering executives will not reach a listening ear because these calls contradict the fundamentals of the System, some clashes has to happen before reach the point of equilibrium so hammering the system will increase the chances for forcing action. In the last 7 years a lot of tries to apply new modern applications by the administrative regime ended in failure, as far as I know. The 2000 decrees issued by the head of the state since 2000, are ineffectual and not reaching its intended goals, which is means the reform impact in Syria is negative; actually the reform score was zero on the list. However as long as there is some one as patient as you are, may be there is a light in the end of the tunnel.
And since recent Russia moves, bringing the bears to the world scene and this might in a way empower dictators it is not good news for civil society and for democratic society to move away from dictatorship.
So, let’s hope that Syria next year will learn from Egypt and compete with her to be in the top ten in the easiness of doing business, and may be it will learn even the backward and clannish stiff monarch of neighboring state of Saudi Arabia is doing better than the constitutional state of Syria.

Thanks again.

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August 17th, 2008, 9:51 pm

 

127. Off the Wall said:

TRUSTQUEST

Thank you for your comment. My intent was not to put a positive spin on the depressing situation. As you notice from my comment on the report I indicated that this problem permeate more than the economic aspect and expands into the daily lives of Syrian citizens. I was trying, as you said, to point how such reports, even when they carry negative implication, can be used by the government not to rhetorically support a call for reform but to identify what kind of information will really tell wheather things are moving in the right direction, and what are the most efficient ways of addressing deficiencies and hurdles.

Modernization is not as simple as my comment indicated, but as long as true committment exist, which must includes the ability to listen to critique without knee jerk reaction, there would be a chance, but the chance to reduce knee jerk reaction would be maximized by taking a professional look at this and similar report and provide a detached assessment. I beleive i tried to point that decrees are only a small part of the solution, and too many decrees risk entrenching the micromanagement mentality, which requires, for example, that every minister be in charge of every single hiring, firing, and promotion in the nation wide system . This has been a problem in many reformist movements in developing countries where the leadership only trust itself in reform, and by that end up making the reform decrees additional weight the system has to carry. I am off course talking generalities here, because I am not familiar with all these 2000 decrees you mentioned.

A while ago, I was hoping that Syria would follow the Chinese model, but since then and after doing more reading, and you have grasped my comment about the bears exactly for what I wanted it to be, the notion of economic progress being detached from human rights progress may gain more traction. And this should and does concern me a greate deal.

I understand that in many countries in the ME, including Syria, professionals, who are much more qualified than I could ever be, have a problem voicing an analysis similar to my simplistic analysis of the report. Only when these proffessional can voice their concerns and suggestions for solutions without being called traitors, and when such recommendations are put foth for public waide discussion, and these professionals are considered partners, things can move in the right direction. Syrian and Lebanese professionals are all over the place managing highly sucessfull enterprises and investment funds in the Gulf, and some of them know exactly what needs to be done to streamline processes even in government owned businesses. I sure hope that they are consulted.

I have some ideas on how professionals and experts can be brought on board without making them bureaucrats (i.e., polluting them with the daily grunts of running an agency). I am still working on that and hope to have it brought for discussion. This would be similar to NORMAN’s educational project

Lastly, I am afraid that I do not share your positive view of Egypt’s progress on this issue, for it has not translated into a single iota of improving the livelyhood of Egyptians, I was there a couple of years ago, and what I witnessed scares the crap out of me. As a dear egyptian friend told me, the country is on the verge of a revolution of the poor (thawret alghalaba), and he does not see it being a peaceful one.

In all cases, you always provide me with the opportunity to refine my position and argument with your “reality” checks. Thank you for that. I value your responses more than I would value a concurring point of view.

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August 17th, 2008, 10:52 pm

 

128. trustquest said:

I’m inline of what you described and I have the same worries, and if you like to know where are my pessimists views coming from, I would tell you that in Syria there are good quantity of qualified professionals which I read to them in the past. The Syrian Economic society (http://www.syrianeconomy.com/), contributed a great deal but unfortunately it has been frozen since 2005, and this is the answer to bringing them on board. It seems to me that the intellectuals are far distance from the current System because they pushed out not because they shied away.
The Egyptian case is valid only for the last year as show the “doing business report”. As far as the revolution, I think a lot of countries as going in this direction for the lack or decent and minimal role of the state in improving the livelihoods of people.

I do not want to praise you here in response and say the obvious, but your contribution to SC is valuable and I enjoy reading your comments.

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August 17th, 2008, 11:51 pm

 

129. norman said:

& Business

Syria lures investment as Gulf countries ignore US sanctionsPublished: Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:59 AM Doha Time

Foreign investment into Syria from the Gulf was about $750mn last year and may have exceeded $2bn annually over the past five years, said Abdallah Dardari, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs
DAMASCUS: Abdallah Dardari, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, has said his country is luring record foreign investment, mostly from oil-rich Arabian Gulf states, and that US sanctions have had a limited impact.
“I don’t think the US has managed to damp foreign direct investment,” Dardari said in an interview in Damascus last week. “Sanctions have failed, especially when they are unilateral.”
Foreign investment into the nation of 19mn from the Gulf was about $750mn last year, according to official statistics, and may have exceeded $2bn annually over the past five years, Dardari said. The funds from wealthy Arab states are compensating for a drop in oil production, helping push economic growth to about 6% this year, he said.
The US imposed sanctions on Syria in May 2004, including a ban on trade transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria, accusing the country of aiding Iraqi militants and destabilising Lebanon. Syria has denied both allegations.
While relations are strained with the European Union, the bloc has granted aid money and resisted calls for sanctions.
Dardari’s growth forecast may prove optimistic, with the Economist Intelligence Unit estimating that growth will slow to 2.4% this year, from 4.3%, because of falling oil production and a poor harvest.
Oil output has declined to 385,000 bpd from a peak of 590,000 bpd in 1996.
Revenue from oil dropped to less than 4% of gross domestic product last year from 17% in 2004, Dardari said. Non-oil exports exceeded $12.5bn, compared with less than $1bn in 2000, spurred by regional demand for items such as textiles, pharmaceuticals, cotton and agricultural produce.
Rising inflation is also a challenge, forecast to accelerate to 16.8% in 2008 from 12.2% last year because of reductions in fuel subsidies and a 25% increase in government salaries and pensions, according to the EIU.
Reducing some of the fuel subsidies “has cooled an overheating economy in the first half of 2008 which helped reduce inflation rates contrary to what everyone thought,” Dardari said. “Raising the price of diesel reduced inflationary expectations and everyone realized the market will stabilise.”
To boost investment, in January of last year, Syria introduced a law allowing foreign investors to own or rent land and take profits out of the country in any currency.
Dubai-based Emaar Properties, the Middle East’s largest developer, is carrying out a $4bn investment plan announced in 2005. National Bank of Kuwait, the Gulf state’s biggest lender by market value, has said it wants to operate a joint venture in the country.
It currently takes 43 days on average to start a business in Syria, compared with 14 days in Jordan, 46 days in Lebanon and 62 days in the United Arab Emirates, according to a report by the World Bank.
Sanctions have had a limited impact. Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri, Turkey’s biggest mobile-phone company, suspended plans to purchase Syriatel, the country’s main mobile-phone company, because of US objections, according to the Turkish company’s chief executive Officer Sureyya Ciliv.
Sanctions “haven’t been devastating, in part because of Gulf money,” said Justin Alexander, an economist at the London-based EIU. “Gulf money is critical and will remain so.”
Dardari said he couldn’t give a precise figure for Gulf investment because “much of it comes through unofficial channels like Syrian partners and joint ventures with Syrian entrepreneurs.”
“Gulf inflows, whether into real estate, banking and industrial projects, as well as from tourism, have certainly been a contributing factor to economic growth,” said Nassib Ghobril, head of research at Lebanon’s Byblos Bank.
To achieve more than the targeted 7% annual growth rate and reduce unemployment to below 6% from an official figure of 8% now and keep poverty below 10%, Syria needs to attract $16bn a year by 2015.
The government is trying to build up tourism. About $3.5bn has been invested in the industry in the past three years, and Dardari said he expects the number of hotel beds to double to 80,000 by 2010 from 40,000.
The tourism industry is forecast to contribute about $9.6bn to Syria’s gross domestic product by 2018 up from $4.9bn this year, according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Employment in the tourism industry will also rise, increasing the number of jobs to about 2mn in ten years, or 18% of the total workforce, from 1.1mn this year.
The government is also in the process of formulating a thorough value added tax regime that will be ready by the end of the year, Dardari said. The VAT will increase the government’s revenue with a limited impact on production and investment, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The ruling Baath Party, which came to power in 1963, began moving toward a market economy in the 1990s, allowing private banks and insurance companies to operate for the first time. – Bloomberg

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August 17th, 2008, 11:56 pm

 

130. Qifa Nabki said:

Observer,

This one is for you:

Russia and the Middle East
by Walter Laquer

[…]

What does Russian domination mean? Not the imposition of the Soviet model as in the Cold War. The present Soviet example (the petrostate) hardly lends itself for export. But the Kremlin will certainly insist on control of the foreign policy of the states in its sphere of influence, as well as (for instance) censorship and some other measures of control.

Ideally, the restoration of the Russian sphere of domination (or at least influence) should proceed gradually, even slowly. It was Stalin’s mistake after World War Two that he proceeded hastily, which generated resistance, including the emergence of NATO.

But Russia is under time pressure for at least three reasons. First, there is the emotional factor. The temptation to show that Russia has returned to a position of strength is very great. Which Russian leader does not want to enter history as another Peter the Great—not to mention some more recent leaders? Second, Russia’s strength rests almost entirely on its position as the world’s leading oil and gas supplier. But this will not last forever. Nor will it be possible to prevent technological progress forever—alternative sources of energy will be found.

Above all, there is Russia’s demographic weakness. Its population is constantly shrinking (and becoming de-Russified). The duration of military service had to be halved because there are not enough recruits. Every fourth recruit is at present of Muslim background; in a few years it will be every third. The density of population in Asian Russia is 2.5 per square kilometer—and declining. There is no possible way to stop or reverse this process, and depopulation means inevitably the loss of wide territories—not to the Americans.

In these circumstances there is a strong urge not to wait but to act now.

read the entire article

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August 18th, 2008, 12:28 am

 

131. norman said:

The attack on Russia might be for the benefit of Syria and Iran ,

The question is , will Russia stay the course or back down as usual .

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August 18th, 2008, 1:21 am

 

132. Shai said:

Norman,

I still doubt Iran will partake in any way in a near-future peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world. Relations may thaw in time, after the Iranians see a living, breathing Palestinian state created, but this will take time. Until then, the Arab world will accept Israel much faster, and vice-versa. Therefore, at the moment it seems Iran should be left out of the equation. If Syria, for instance, insists on including Iran in some fashion (allowing Iranian support to flow to HA) in an agreement, Israel will reject it outright. Even if a future Israeli PM will not be able to get Syria to leave the “axis of evil”, he/she will have to sell it to the Israeli people in such way as to essentially suggest the same. So a newly formed axis which includes Russia, Syria, Iran, and others, may not be such a good thing right now, at least not if we’re interested in peace soon. In the long term, it may be a good thing, as an alternative to America in the region. But in the short term, it will cause many in the region, and worldwide, to suspect, fear, and therefore harden their views.

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August 18th, 2008, 4:12 am

 

133. Khorshid Khanoum said:

Haaretz, ynetnews and any site hosted by blogspot are blocked by the main Syrian internet service provider. Do you think you guys could cut and paste extracts rather than just providing the link. Thanks.

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August 18th, 2008, 8:21 am

 

134. Khorshid Khanoum said:

Also, anything from opposition sites, of course. Do you keep a list of what’s blocked and what’s not, Alex?

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August 18th, 2008, 8:23 am

 

135. why-discuss said:

Shai, OTW

Many educated and low skilled arabs already dream to move to the west for a peaceful, secure and lucrative life. Young educated palestinians will jump on the opportunity to relocate in a western country where they can develop and use their skills. Just see how many lebanese and syrians emigrated to South America with no claim on coming back. You’ll be surprised about the number of professional palestinians settled in Honduras or Nicaragua.
I guess with enough financial compensation and a choice of countries (some may be arabs), most palestinians will relocate gladly. The ones who would be reluctant are the elder and the ones who have established family connections in lebanon. Many palestinians in Lebanon have probably some members of their family already in a western country. For these, relocation would be easier. I doubt many palestinians would prefer to live in camps in lebanon with no future for their family, except the impossible dream of finding their ancestor village intact in occupied Israel.

Most arabs have experienced emigration to a new country with the usual traumas associated with it, so it won’t be that unusual.
The main difficulty would be to have the UN pressure Israel and the international community to pay the financial compensation and get a list of countries who would offer to accept whole families of refugees. I think the rest should be easy.

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August 18th, 2008, 9:28 am

 

136. Sami D said:

Qifa Nabki wrote:

… because the Arabs are now negotiating from strength rather than weakness. I don’t see it in the same way. To me, this is the story that we tell ourselves in order to sell Syria’s peace talks to those who would prefer to keep fighting. And as you know, I am a 100% supporter of the talks, so I’m not opposed to painting them in whatever colors are necessary to make them acceptable to those who would otherwise reject them. In my opinion, however, the current talks are the product of intense strategy and cost/benefit assessment by both sides. Hizbullah may have fought the IDF to a stalemate in 2006, but Lebanon surely suffered far more than Israel did.

Dear Qifa,

In order to settle the talks-vs-resistance issue, the basics of the situation need first to be agreed upon. If we consider that the Arab-Israeli conflict is merely a normal dispute between two neighbors over real estate, rather than a situation of an aggressor who covets and has devoured someone else’s land and resources, then talks by themselves might indeed be the way to go. This is not the situation here, however. Israel is an aggressor who wants and has stolen Arab land and resources, mainly Palestine, as well as acts as a regional hegemon. As such, it is not likely to be persuaded by those it dispossessed through negotiations alone. The victims of this conflict do not “prefer to keep fighting”; they want their rights, land and resources restored.

True, Lebanon paid a dear price for standing up, and that is not unexpected from an enemy that has repeatedly demonstrated barbarian behavior when the victims dared raise their head. What is quite new here is that all this orgy of wanton destruction by Israel didn’t produce for it any of its main goals in 2006. The opposite sometimes happened. Hezbulla was not destroyed; it got stronger. Nasralla wasn’t finished; he emerged as the most credible Arab leader ever. Israel could not liberate its soldiers with its muscles. Israel couldn’t stop thousands of rockets that landed on its side of the border. Israeli forces couldn’t cross far into Lebanon. Israeli soldier casualties versus those of Hezbulla were not that different, which is unusual. Israeli tanks were turned into heaps of scrap metals. Israeli leaders and upper military commanders faced ouster thanks to their performance. And finally, Hezbulla’s conditions for returning captured soldiers were met obediently and humiliatingly by Israel, and Lebanese prisoners and bodies were returned.

Syria, as a result of its alliance with Hezbulla and Iran, is in a position of slightly more power after 2006 than before vis-à-vis Israel, hence just a little more likely to convince it through talks, whether someone wants to use this argument to “sell Syria’s peace talks” to convince others or not. But I doubt the persuasion will go beyond the Golan, hence my suspicion of a Syrian sellout of the Palestinians. Without demonstration of successful resistance to aggression, talks with the aggressor, as the Palestinians have found out, “are for the birds” 😉

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August 18th, 2008, 9:45 am

 

137. norman said:

Last update – 09:31 18/08/2008
Iran and Syria, in the role of Russia
By Itamar Rabinovitch

Now that the fighting in Georgia has died down, policy shapers and pundits in the West are free to analyze the maneuvers and results, and draw lessons. The picture that emerges is a dismal one. Vladimir Putin’s Russia exercised brutal force with the object of bringing a rebellious neighbor to its knees. The United States, which encouraged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to defy Moscow, did not give him any real support. Former Soviet republics and satellites will now think twice before confronting Russia, or will be tempted to seek shelter beneath the cover of the U.S., NATO or the European Union. Oil is now much less likely to reach the Caspian Sea without Russia’s involvement.

The Georgian crisis will have specific repercussions on the Middle East. There is less of a chance that the United States and Russia will be cooperating to stop Iran’s nuclear program. There is a greater chance that Russia will wage a more ambitious and aggressive policy, including selling advanced weapons systems to Iran and Syria. There will also be a host of indirect repercussions. In this context, there is a striking similarity between the Russian move in the Caucasus, and Iran and Syria’s move in Lebanon.

On May 7, an armed struggle broke out between Hezbollah and the so-called March 14 coalition, led by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The crisis was prompted by Siniora’s refusal to put up with Hezbollah having its own nationwide communication network, another blatant blow to the Lebanese government’s sovereignty. Hezbollah beat its rivals in the violent conflict, but refrained from extracting a military achievement, opting instead for political gains.

On May 23 a political compromise was reached in Doha, Qatar, enabling a new government led by Siniora, and letting the elected president, General Michel Suleiman, enter his post. In addition, Syria agreed, with French mediation, to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, thereby obliquely recognizing it neighbor’s independence and sovereignty. That understanding paved the way for Bashar Assad’s invitation to the July 13 conference of the new Union for the Mediterranean, as an honored guest of France.

However, the full significance of the Doha compromise soon became clear. When Hezbollah threw a homecoming party for Samir Kuntar, the president and prime minister took part (the latter, at least, seemed to be under duress), and thus were seen as accepting Hezbollah’s hegemony and role as a semi-state institution, and as accepting Kuntar and his murderous acts as a heroic Lebanese operation.

More importantly, the new government’s guidelines and President Suleiman’s speeches gave legitimacy to Hezbollah’s ongoing battle for the Shaba Farms. Hezbollah was therein given a standing equivalent to the Lebanese Army’s, and a rationale for continuing its violence against Israel – not as a terror organization, but as an arm of the Lebanese state.

Hezbollah and its patrons have settled for these accomplishments for now, and have chosen not to use their military victory as a springboard for a complete takeover of the Lebanese state.

The similarity between this chain of events and the crisis in Georgia is striking: Iran and Syria parallel Russia, Siniora and Saakashvili are the pro-Western leaders, Hezbollah resembles the separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, France is the frenetic Western mediator, and above all – the Bush administration, encouraging Saakashvili and Siniora as supporters of democracy. Both leaders tried to stem the tide, wound up confronting a superior force, and discovered that the waning Bush administration was of no use.

Israel continues to monitor the crisis in the Caucasus, but has a far greater, more immediate interest in how things play out in Lebanon. So far, it has been a nearly passive spectator. The Israeli government, approaching the end of its term, has learned from the 1982 attempt to shape Lebanese politics and the baggage left by the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

For Israel, the developments in Lebanon are part of a complex strategic, political picture – Iran’s aspiration to regional hegemony and nuclear weapons; the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis; the negotiations with Syria, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; the Bush administration’s decision to refrain from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities and its pressure on Israel to wait for diplomacy – all while the Israeli government and the Bush administration are approaching their end, with their potential heirs mired in elections and inheritance battles.

This interim period is expected to end in early 2009. That is when the new U.S. administration and the Israeli government will have to formulate both an overall strategy and specific solutions to the above issues. In view of the dilemmas Hezbollah and its patrons are posing in Lebanon, Israel will have to choose between a political response (from an Israeli standpoint, an agreement with Syria; from an American standpoint, dialogue with Syria and possibly Iran), and preparing to meet more serious challenges than the ones we faced in the summer of 2006.

The writer served as Israeli ambassador to the United States.

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August 18th, 2008, 12:23 pm

 

138. norman said:

Another boost for Syria

Aug 18th 2008
From The Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire

A string of diplomatic successes for Syria’s government

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has been on a diplomatic roll since his triumphant appearance in Paris on Bastille Day. He has had further opportunities to display his statesmanship this month with visits to Iran and Turkey, and a visit by Lebanon’s new president, Michel Suleiman, on August 13th and 14th was crowned with the announcement of a widely applauded agreement to establish diplomatic relations. Next week Mr Assad is off to the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and in early September he is to host the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who only nine months ago declared that he had severed contacts with the Syrian regime.

Give a little…
The main thrust of Mr Assad’s diplomacy has been to convince the West that it has a better chance of achieving the goals of peace, stability and security in the Middle East through engaging with Syria than through trying to put pressure on Syria to break its long-standing alliances with Iran and Hizbullah. Syria’s critics maintain that Mr Assad’s means of getting this message across has entailed combining the role of arsonist and firefighter—creating problems such as the prolonged constitutional crisis in Lebanon and then using its influence to engineer solutions, for which it is happy to claim credit.

Mr Sarkozy, for one, has chosen to overlook past transgressions and to concentrate on positive outcomes—the election of Mr Suleiman; the Damascus agreement on Syrian-Lebanese bilateral relations; the indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel; the Hamas ceasefire in Gaza; improved security in Iraq; and Mr Assad’s agreement to act as a channel of communication to the Iranian leadership. However, the extent of Syria’s actual contribution to achieving these outcomes is open to question, and the suspicion remains that Mr Assad’s objective is to re-establish Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon, albeit in a different form from the past, while bolstering external supports to the Syrian economy through signing the Association Agreement with the EU (which has lain dormant since it was initialled four years ago) and persuading the US to lift its sanctions.

Lebanon limits
The agreement announced at the end of Mr Suleiman’s visit had six points, including the plan for exchanging ambassadors, which is likely to be put into effect relatively quickly. The other points cover border delineation, border security, missing persons (from both sides), review of existing accords, and promotion of trade and other economic ties. The agreement represents a significant concession from Mr Assad, inasmuch as Syria has been reluctant to confer such formal recognition on Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence owing to long-standing grievances over the way in which the two countries were established in their current form after the First World War.

However, Syria was quick to clarify a number of aspects of the agreement, casting some doubt on the extent of Mr Assad’s actual concessions. The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Muallim, said that the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied enclave on the western flank of the Golan Heights, would be excluded from the border delineation discussions. After Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the Lebanese government, with Syria’s rhetorical backing, laid claim to the Shebaa Farms, and Israel’s continued presence there has been used ever since by Hizbullah as justification for maintaining its weapons in the cause of resistance to occupation. The UN has deemed the enclave to be part of Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967. Syria has thus far refused to cede the territory formally to Lebanon. To do so would be to undermine Hizbullah’s resistance claim.

Mr Muallim also made a distinction between Syrian and Lebanese citizens who had gone missing during the 29-year period when Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon and between people who had been convicted of offences. Lebanese human rights groups have recently stepped up their campaign to ascertain the fate of several hundred Lebanese who disappeared after being picked up by Syrian security services. Syria has responded by claiming that many of these people are common criminals, and that up to 700 Syrians are unaccounted for in Lebanon. Mr Muallim also cast doubt on the likelihood of a formal visit to Lebanon by Mr Assad in the near future, noting that certain unspecified conditions would need to be met before this could happen. He also doused speculation that the exchange of ambassadors would result in the disbandment of the joint commission that currently deals with bilateral issues and which was constituted at a time when Syria was in control of Lebanese security affairs.

Noises off
In a reminder of the combustible nature of Lebanese politics, on the morning of Mr Suleiman’s visit to Damascus a powerful explosion was set off in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing 15 people, including nine Lebanese soldiers travelling in a bus, which appeared to have been the target of the bomb. The incident followed several weeks of intermittent clashes between rival militias from the Sunni and Alawi communities in the city. Variants of such clashes have occurred at regular intervals in Tripoli over the past 30 years, and have often reflected wider political machinations. The bomb attack could mark a resurgence of activity by the extreme Islamist Fatah al-Islam group that fought a three-month war with the Lebanese army in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp outside Tripoli last year. However, it has also been suggested that the attack may have been intended to draw the Lebanese army into an assault on radical Sunni Islamist groups in Tripoli, which would be likely to exacerbate divisions within the wider Sunni community. The ultimate purpose of such destabilising activity would be to ensure that the Sunni-led anti-Syrian front, which holds the majority of seats in parliament, loses the general election scheduled to take place in mid-2009.

Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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August 18th, 2008, 12:33 pm

 

139. Qifa Nabki said:

Syria, as a result of its alliance with Hezbulla and Iran, is in a position of slightly more power after 2006 than before vis-à-vis Israel, hence just a little more likely to convince it through talks, whether someone wants to use this argument to “sell Syria’s peace talks” to convince others or not.

Sami,

I think that you and I agree. My point was made to those who believed that Syria had emerged victorious and was now in a position to force Israel to submit to its terms. This is just not realistic to me. The way you put it is far more acceptable: Syria is in a position of slightly more power, than it occupied before 2006. Actually, I’d go further to say that Syria is in significantly better shape on a number of fronts: diplomatic isolation has largely ended, economic indicators are looking up, the Lebanese situation is far more stable, etc. But this does not mean that Syria has turned the corner. That’s all I was saying.

As for talks vs. resistance, I appreciate your point, I do! I didn’t mean to suggest that those who reject talks are just being difficult. We’re talking about two different visions of the future of the conflict. I prefer the one that Bashar is trying to actualize.

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August 18th, 2008, 12:51 pm

 

140. Qifa Nabki said:

Shai said:

If Syria, for instance, insists on including Iran in some fashion (allowing Iranian support to flow to HA) in an agreement, Israel will reject it outright. Even if a future Israeli PM will not be able to get Syria to leave the “axis of evil”, he/she will have to sell it to the Israeli people in such way as to essentially suggest the same.

Shai, I’m interested in hearing what you think will be Israel’s terms for an agreement, with respect to Iran and Hizbullah.

When pressed to give specifics, the Syrians always respond by saying things like: “We want a just and comprehensive solution based on UNSC resolutions, etc.” But do you think that Sami is right, i.e. that Syrian persuasion will not “go beyond the Golan”?

I mean, even just for the Golan, Israel’s going to demand ending all support for Hizbullah, etc. Syria knows this and is trying to transform Hizbullah’s arsenal into a much more imposing threat, with the strategy that they will be able to get more than just the Golan.

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August 18th, 2008, 1:20 pm

 

141. Qifa Nabki said:

The Region: Israel’s grand strategy
Aug. 17, 2008
Barry Rubin , THE JERUSALEM POST

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Israel has a strategy. After all, given politicians’ maneuvering, the difference between what is said in public and private, the partisan sniping and so on, it’s easy to miss the underlying coherence of policy. This is not to suggest that politicians are thinking great ideas and putting them into effect; rather it is the set of interests, threats and opportunities that push people into a coherent structure.

There is no solution; the enemy is not going away, nor will it moderate. The world wants to hear that Israel is seeking peace and doing everything possible, and it will.

Yet the fact that these expectations are wrong is also an essential part of the idea package.

Total military triumph is also not a way to solve the problems, as far as ending them is concerned. Attacks can be deterred, reduced in number and made less effective, but actual peace is beyond reach.

If, however, the threats and their effect can be minimized, life goes on and the country does well. So far this year, unemployment has hit a 20-year low, the economy is doing incredibly well and tourism has hit an all-time high. Morale is high despite contempt for the current prime minister. Things are pretty good.

This does not mean people are naïve, even compared to the levels of hope in the 1990s. Lessons have been learned. So here’s what underlies what’s happening.

ISRAEL IS facing threats on four fronts. In each case, there is an effort under way to neutralize, or rather reduce, those problems.

1. To the north is Hizbullah. The Lebanese radical Islamist group will never accept Israel’s existence. If it thinks such actions are profitable Hizbullah will attack, at least through cross-border raids. The prisoner exchange has not sated its appetite; instead, it has produced more bragging. But it has also contributed to undercutting one of its most compelling means of incitement.

Hizbullah’s main problem, however, is two-fold. Its top priority is securing the bulk of power within Lebanon and at least doing well in next May’s election. Fighting Israel right now is a distraction from that goal. In addition, Hizbullah reduced its popularity in 2006 with just such a war and has not been able to rehouse many of its supporters after two years, despite lavish promises.

Aside from the cost of the attack, Israel’s tactic is to warn Lebanon that now with Hizbullah back in the government, any aggression will result in all of Lebanon being a target. Israel’s deterrence on this front should not be underestimated, and it is likely to remain relatively quiet for a while.

2. To the northeast is Syria, with whom the government is currently negotiating. Virtually no one in the leadership expects an agreement. But aside from domestic politics, the immediate goal is to give Syria an incentive to keep Hizbullah on a leash. The attack on Syria’s nuclear installation, probable involvement in assassinating a high-ranking Hizbullah official allied to Syria and a possible part in killing a Syrian general also signalled Damascus that Israel can hit it hard if necessary.

A key aspect is the humiliating nature of these three incidents. The IAF showed its planes could attack anywhere in Syria. and that a high-ranking terrorist was not safe even in Damascus’s most secure area. That sent a clear message.

So Syria is constrained from attacking directly or indirectly. But there is another element of Israeli policy towards that country that is little understood: the looming confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons. If Israel some day attacks Iran, it wants to minimize the extent to which Syria or Hizbullah would retaliate. By providing them incentives to remain quiet – reinforced by deterrence power – these two forces are less likely to attack, or would do so at a lower level. A similar pattern exists on the eastern front, with the Palestinian Authority, and southern one, with Hamas.

3. Regarding the PA, Israel wants to see Fatah remain in power: Hamas would be worse, and the PA does do a bit to block terrorism. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are eager either to reach an agreement in principle with the PA (nowadays called a shelf agreement) or pretend to have done so to claim great success. At the same time, though, there is little illusion about possible peace and no better real alternative than maintaining the status quo.

4. In the short term, the Hamas front is the most potentially volatile. Through the cease-fire, Hamas has been given incentive not to go to all-out war if its patron Iran is attacked. Of course, Hamas frequently violates the cease-fire, either directly or by tolerating attacks – but at a low level. For Israel, the decision posed is what amount of violations (or in the longer run, Hamas military buildup) should trigger an offensive. There are also few illusions about a military attack “ending” the problem or stopping rocket firing completely. Virtually nobody thinks Hamas will make peace or even a long-term, reliable cease-fire. Yet again the status quo is about the best that can be accomplished.

THE EFFORTS on these four fronts will not necessarily diminish the response to a future attack on Iran, but they could and are – for other reasons as well – basically worth trying. This doesn’t mean all politicians would implement this strategy the same way or that the current government’s actions are brilliant – in general terms, the current leadership gives up more than is advisable or necessary – but the gap isn’t huge.

The bottom line is that being prepared to focus on the Iranian front, the relatively good domestic situation, internal politics, the lack of attractive alternatives, the intransigence of opponents, the weakness and doubtful moderation of potential negotiating partners and international passion for the mirage of peace have created a strategy based on a relative consensus across the political spectrum. It looks messy and certainly poses a range of problems, yet is neither terrible nor irrational.

One might apply here in joking terms the anecdote about Winston Churchill being asked what it was like to be 90 years old. “Terrible,” he replied, “but consider the alternatives.”

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies.

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August 18th, 2008, 1:36 pm

 

142. Shai said:

QN,

I just read the Jerusalem Post article by Rubin, and I must say that I don’t recall anything I so much disagreed with, as this one. I can barely think of a single sentence I agreed with. The entire analysis was flawed. Nothing there made sense. I’m quite shocked by this “director of research”. What a miserable piece…

As for your questions above, the real question, I believe, is what would Israel’s red lines be vis-a-vis Syria. We can imagine every Israeli PM would love to claim responsibility for having removed Syria from the Axis-of-Evil, but this is quite unrealistic. I believe the most we can demand of Syria (and to which I hope Syria will agree), in return for the Golan, is the following:

1. No more weapons passing hands between Iran and Syria.
2. Not to allow weapons from Iran (or anyone else) to cross into Lebanon or Hezbollah.

That’s it. Israel knows it cannot ask Syria to cut off its diplomatic ties with anyone, be it Iran, HA, or Micronesia. And Syria would never agree to it. You know my own opinion about this – that it is very much in Israel’s best interest, that Syria remain very close to Iran, to HA, and to Hamas. Israel only stands to benefit from that, not the opposite.

As for Sami’s suggestion that Syria will not get more than the Golan and, that in essence, it may indeed be “selling out” the Palestinians, I believe there is much truth to that. First, I find it hard to believe that Syria will put the end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as precondition to accepting the Golan back. If it were possible, they’d take it back tomorrow morning, Palestinians or not. What is true, is that in the agreement, the Palestinian issue will receive great attention, and a perception will be created, that real peace between the countries will occur only if the Palestinian issue is resolved. The only part that will be true, is the real peace between the people of the two nations, not between the nations, their leaderships, or the governments. An Israeli flag will fly atop an embassy in Damascus, and vice-versa in Tel-Aviv, before the Palestinians and Israelis have resolved all their differences. I hope not long afterwards, Syria will help broker talks between Israel and Hamas/Fatah, and will help us end the conflict. But it will not place any preconditions, I believe.

Your last sentence was “… with the strategy that they will be able to get more than just the Golan.” I’m not sure what you mean. What else will Syria demand, aside from the Golan?

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August 18th, 2008, 5:27 pm

 

143. Qifa Nabki said:

Shai,

Thanks for your response.

What you’re basically saying is that Sami’s fears are going to be realized. 🙂

In other words, in order to get the Golan back Syria is going to have to “sell out” the Palestinians in the short term, with the hopes that they will be able to broker a deal in the long term. So, there will be a “cold peace” until a warmer one can be brought about through that much-discussed but ever elusive “comprehensive solution”…

This begs the question: what is going to make it different this time around? Hasn’t this been tried before? And haven’t we regularly heard from Syria and its allies that Egypt and Jordan’s peace deals sold out the Palestinians and the Arab cause with no net benefit? If the Egyptian/Jordanian model is NOT the operative one for the current talks, then what is?

I think we had a version of this discussion recently… I can’t quite remember.

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August 18th, 2008, 6:39 pm

 

144. Shai said:

QN,

Three different Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan, Syria) have already proven they are perfectly willing to discuss, and close a deal with Israel, without a “comprehensive solution”. If you consider other Arab nations that were perfectly willing to have certain relations with Israel, that list is even greater (including Morocco, Qatar, UAE, etc.)

This term, “comprehensive solution”, is used to make everyone around happy. To make the Arabs on the street feel that their leaders aren’t selling the Palestinians away. Because if they ARE selling them away, then what have the past 60 years of wars and struggle been about, right? But in reality, I sincerely believe that Bashar Assad is far more interested in the Golan than in Nablus or Ramallah. He wants the Palestinians to have a state of course, and he wants to see a just solution to the refugee problem, there’s no doubt about that. But he’s not going to wait for that to happen first. He also knows that he can’t really place preconditions that relate to the Palestinians, before receiving his own Golan back. That’s called wishful thinking, for those who think this will happen.

Having said that, I don’t believe the Palestinians will be “sold out”, like perhaps they were with Egypt and Jordan. The difference will come in what Syria will do once the agreement is signed. What Syria can demand (and I hope it does), is to be able to participate in helping bring the parties together. I cannot think of a better key player than Syria, for this role. But there will not be a comprehensive peace solution, in the sense of a large round table, all the parties sitting around, coming to a comprehensive agreement, which is signed by all. That may take place, symbolically, with the Arab league and Israel, once we make peace with Syria, and then with the Palestinians. The 3 Yes’s of Beirut, Riyadh, and Damascus, will be met, but not in one shot.

I fully understand the skepticism, and outright fear, that many Arabs (and particularly Palestinians) feel about such a scenario. They still suspect Israel’s intentions to “divide-and-conquer”, to make peace with Syria so as to further legitimize their hold on territory and their Occupation in Palestine. They believe this is what happened with Egypt and Jordan. But we must be realistic. While Fatah and Hamas can barely speak to each other, except through bullets, what do the Palestinians expect, that the whole Arab world will wait for them? That suddenly Israel will “see the light” (even if that light is the oncoming Hezbollah rocket…)? That Israel will pack up tomorrow morning, end the Occupation, and leave a big fat check on the table as it leaves? That it will find a just solution to the refugees, without first coming to agreement with Hamas? None of this can happen, until we at least start talking, and especially with Hamas. This is my opinion, and I do apologize for the “harsh” language. I’m trying to be pragmatic, and not dream of something that just isn’t going to happen that way.

Syria has a right to the Golan regardless of whether the Palestinian have achieved their legitimate rights. And therefore, it should receive back this territory as soon as possible. Israel, on the other hand, will not hand the Golan back, just because it’s the right thing to do. It’ll do so, if it gets something back, namely peace with Syria. And personally I believe we won’t move forward a single inch, without having a serious broker involved. Egypt could have, in theory, played that role. It proved that it can’t. As someone mentioned earlier (can’t recall who), if Mubarak can only go as far as suggesting “he’s sent the invitations to both parties, and is now waiting…”, then what can we expect? Syria is the only party that can be trusted by all sides (Fatah, Hamas, and Israel). It therefore must help us talk to each other, and solve our differences. That will happen the minute Israel and Syria sign an agreement. Most Israelis will not opt to “further legitimize their occupation”. They want peace. In fact, while most Israelis right now are not ready to give back the Golan, most ARE ready to give back most of the West Bank, realizing that Palestine must be created. Israel will be more than ready to have Syria help on this realm. But it can’t happen in parallel (since there’s no trust yet), it needs to happen in line. And it will.

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August 19th, 2008, 3:56 am

 

145. Qifa Nabki said:

Shai

Good response. I’m saving the URL of your comment to refer people to it whenever there is talk of comprehensive solutions.

😉

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August 19th, 2008, 10:34 am

 

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