Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, February 13th, 2007
Twin bus bombings in Lebanon today are a bid by anti-government elements to destabilize the country and part of a general campaign to intimidate Lebanon's Christian population, Samy Gemayel, brother of assassinated Lebanese politician Pierre Gemayel told WND in an interview.
The bus bombings come on the eve of the second anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, whose death has been widely blamed on Syria.
The attacks, which killed at least three people and injured dozens, occurred as the two buses passed through the Christian town of Ein Alaq, the ancestral home of Samy Gemayel's father, former president Amin Gemayel, and his uncle Bashir, also a former president.
"Previous Lebanese institutions have failed. Our current institutions have failed. We need new institutions and a new political formula so everyone feels they are fairly represented," Gemayel said.
Leaders in the Lebanese government said they believed today's attacks were timed to deter people from attending protests to mark the anniversary of Hariri's murder. Pro-government groups had planned a mass memorial for Hariri in Beirut's Martyrs Square for tomorrow.
Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze community and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, blamed today's bus bombings on Syria.
"This is an attempt by Syria to intimidate and to sabotage the formation of a tribunal to try the murderers of Hariri," Jumblatt told WND.
Jumblatt, largely considered the most prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese politician, said he hoped the attacks would prompt the people of Lebanon to unite.
Lebanon has failed the past few months to approve the formation of a tribunal to try suspects for Hariri's murder due to opposition from Hezbollah, which has threatened to derail the government unless the militia gains more control of the parliament.
Stratfor concludes of the dual bus bombing:
The politically motivated attack likely is connected to the Syrian intelligence apparatus, which aims to instigate violent clashes between Lebanon's heavily armed factions in order to justify a Syrian intervention. Most of the victims were Greek Orthodox.
there are a number of players in Lebanon that would like to see the situation spiral out of control, namely Syria. The buses that were attacked originated in the hometown of Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr, who on Feb. 8 seized a truckload of explosives belonging to Hezbollah and containing more than 120 mortars, Katyusha rockets and scores of mortar shell cases. Murr's refusal to return the weapons to Hezbollah, which was transporting them from the Bekaa Valley to stockpile in Beirut's Shiite-controlled southern suburb, was an embarrassment for Hezbollah's leadership.
The perpetrators of the bus bombings likely are attempting to draw a connection between the confiscation of Hezbollah's weapons and the attack in order to draw the group into a violent conflict. The Bteghrine area in the upper Metn is part of the domain of influence of the Syrian Nationalist and Socialist Party, which has direct links to Syrian intelligence. While Hezbollah is unlikely to have carried out this attack against civilian targets — since doing so would bring political repercussions while it is in the midst of a heated protest campaign — members of Syria's intelligence apparatus would have an interest in skyrocketing tensions in Lebanon and ensuring that the Feb. 14 anniversary is marred by violence. Doing so would give Syria the justification to intervene in the affairs of its western neighbor to restore order and reclaim its military position in the country, which was lost in the aftermath of the al-Hariri assassination.
The biggest problem with pinning the bombing on Syria is that many SSNP members (Syria Social Nationalist Party) were killed, who have been loyal backers of Syria and the Lebanese opposition. As Stratfor admits, "Most of the victims were Greek Orthodox." Ali Qansouh, the head of SSNP announced that many of the people hurt on the buses were members of his party. Coming on the eve of the second anniversary of the Hariri killing, the timing is clearly political and designed to inflame demonstrators. Who authored this crime is not yet clear, although the inflamed political environment in Lebanon will ensure that both sides blame the other.
Analysis: Gemayel vying for presidency? CLAUDE SALHANI of UPI wonders what Amine Gemayel, a former Lebanese president, was doing at the White House last week, meeting with President Bush. He askes, "Is his visit to the White House an indication that the Bush administration might want to see him become president once again?" Maybe the US likes him better than either Aoun or Geagea? Salhani is on to something.
Palestinian gratitude to Syria for Hamas, Fatah conciliation: This story confirms Alex's argument in a previous comment section that the Hamas-PLO deal announced in Mecca had largely been worked out in Damascus the previous week. It also lends support to Alex's conjecture that there is a Syrian-Saudi dialogue taking place beneath the meetings. Read Alex's analysis here.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday sent special envoy Rohi Fattoh to brief the leadership of Syria on 'new developments' on the Palestinian arena, Syria's official news agency SANA reported.
Farouk al-Sharaa met Fattoh for discussions on the issue.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Palestinian envoy expressed gratitude for the 'positive role' Syrian leadership played in achieving Palestinian conciliation. Syrian intervention had 'paved the way' for the Mecca accord, he told reporters.
Fattoh noted that leaders from the Palestinian factions would meet in Damascus at the end of the month as was agreed in the Cairo Declaration of March 2005.
Arab League Chief Amr Moussa has visited Damascus to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to take part in the next summit of the League, according to a very informed source. The next AL summit is scheduled to be held in Riyadh in March. Syria will demand a price of Saudi Arabia for Bashar's attendence. This story also suggests a Saudi-Syrian dialogue. As an unnamed Egyptian source told Michael Slackman of the NYT's recently, the AL meeting in Saudi during march will see an attempt to bring Syria back into Saudi Arabia's good graces. Egyptians are clearly hoping that Amr Moussa will be able to broker a Lebanon deal by then, which could be announced at the AL meeting. We will see.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Israel will have no choice but to part with the Golan Heights if it ever wants peace with neighboring Syria.
"The whole world knows that in any future negotiations, if they are renewed, we will have to give up on the entire Golan Heights," Ha'aretz quoted Olmert as telling the committee.
The remarks came as part of a heated argument with committee member and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu.
Olmert charged that during his tenure as prime minister, Netanyahu had held negotiations with Syria based on the premise of ceding territory on the strategic plateau. Netanyahu denied that he had ever intended to comply with Syrian territorial demands.
At any rate, Olmert reiterated his opposition to renewing negotiations with Syria at this time, pointing out that Damascus is "interested in the industry of peace, rather than real peace."
Arabs try outreach to Israel, U.S. Jews, by Barbara Slavin in USA TODAY runs through the high-level meetings between Gulf figures and Israeli officials and American Jews, organized to cement relations between the new "moderate states" and allies of the US. Here are a few:
•Last month, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's departing ambassador to the United States, attended a Washington reception sponsored by American Jewish organizations. The event honored a State Department diplomat appointed to combat anti-Semitism.
•Saudi national security adviser Bandar bin Sultan met privately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jordan in September, said Daniel Ayalon, Israel's former ambassador to Washington. He said it was the highest-level Saudi-Israeli meeting he'd ever heard of.
•The United Arab Emirates has invited a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The conference, a 51-member umbrella group, is a strong supporter of Israel.
•Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres met the emir of Qatar in late January after taking part in a debate with Arab students there. It was the highest-level Israeli meeting with the Gulf nation since 1996, when Peres visited as prime minister.
Iraqi Refugees in Syria
The Syrian Embassy in Washington announced Monday that:
Contrary to what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was told last Thursday, there has been no communication between any U.S. and Syrian officials regarding the Iraqi refugees’ situation in Syria.
Reuters reports: Iraq's government said on Tuesday it would close its borders with Syria and Iran and extend the hours of a night curfew in Baghdad under a U.S.- backed security plan to rein in violence in the capital. The measures were ordered by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki. Qanbar said the border with Iran and Syria would be closed for 72 hours. He did not say when the closures would take effect.
The Economist Intelligence Unit writes on 16 February 2007:
The exodus of Iraqis from the chaos and carnage in their country has had mixed effects on its neighbours
The Syrian government has said that its recent decision to impose restrictions on the entry of Iraqis was taken for both security and economic reasons. The statement suggested that the chief concern was the potentially damaging effects of the growing numbers of Iraqis in Syria on the country’s social harmony and economic well-being. The timing of the decision appears to reflect anxiety in Damascus about the impact of any worsening of the internal situation in Iraq, as the US prepares for its new security “surge” in Baghdad and the surrounding area, and in light of the looming storm over the question of Kirkuk.
The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that 1.8m Iraqis have sought refuge in the region, with the largest concentrations in Syria and Jordan. In both countries, the influx of Iraqis has brought some benefits, as many of the refugees have come from relatively wealthy strata of Iraqi society, and their presence has acted as an economic stimulus and an important source of foreign exchange inflows. Syria, for example has recently revised upwards its real GDP growth figures for 2004 and 2005 (to 8.6% and 4.5% respectively) and has altered its current-account figures for those two years to show a surplus rather than a deficit through adding some US$2bn in to its export figures in both years. These exports are mainly from the non-oil private sector, and turn up in the accounts as originating from “other countries”. The possibility that these funds relate to transfers into Syria from Iraq cannot be ruled out.
However, the influx has also bred social tensions in both Syria and Jordan, as the Iraqis are widely blamed for stoking inflation, particularly in the housing market, and services such as education and health have been placed under increasing strain.
Syria’s response has been to impose a visa requirement on Iraqis entering Syria and on those already present in the country. The visas are valid for only 15 days, and may only be renewed once on presentation of documents including a valid rental contract. Otherwise, Iraqis must return home for 30 days before re-applying. For wealthier Iraqis already present in Syria, this should not be a serious impediment. However, the new system should help the Syrian authorities to put a cap on any further major influx of refugees, particularly in the event of an Arab-Kurdish flare-up in Kirkuk.
The Kurdish question is also of critical importance for Turkey, both for its own domestic political reasons and for trade. Turkey and Iraq have recently resumed border trade after a dispute arose in January over the issuing of permits for Turkish companies exporting petroleum products. The dispute concerned letters mailed to Turkish petroleum transportation companies by Iraq’s oil ministry instructing them to apply to officials in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country for licences to continue exporting fuel into Iraq.
The matter was subsequently taken up by the Turkish foreign ministry, which sent letters to the Iraqi oil ministry and to Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organisation (SOMO) warning them that Turkey did not recognise any authorities other than the administration in Baghdad.
The confrontation saw Turkey halt exports of petroleum products to Iraq, and the authorities on the Iraqi side responded by refusing to allow trucks carrying meat and poultry products to cross the border, and queues of up to 40 km built up towards the Habur border crossing between the two countries. The situation was only resolved following the receipt by Turkey’s Department of Foreign trade of a letter from SOMO, confirming that Turkish companies would not be obliged to obtain permits from officials of the semi-autonomous Kurdish controlled region in northern Iraq and could continue to export petroleum products under the existing system. However, even before the dispute, the number of Turkish tankers supplying Iraq had been in decline. SOMO has preferred to place orders with companies in Iran, Jordan and Syria, and even with Azeri companies shipping products via Turkey.
The tensions on the Turkish border are likely to be exacerbated if Iraq’s Kurds step up their efforts to incorporate Kirkuk into their region, as Turkey has made clear its strong objections to any such move.
The Oxford Business Group has this to say about the Syrian economy:
Syria: Balancing Act: Feb 12, 2007
Syria is looking to build on last year's achievements in shifting the country's economy away from centralised control toward a more open, market-based model, as the talk of senior officials is matched by new moves toward liberalisation.
In 2006, Syria took a number of significant steps toward opening up the economy, implementing measures designed to strengthen the role of the private sector, attract foreign investment and reduce the state's presence of the state in the day to day running of business.
These included sanctioning the opening of private insurance firms, liberalising banking laws to allow for the full entry of foreign banks into the market and forming partnerships with existing Syrian financial institutions. They also allowed for laying the groundwork for the opening of the Damascus Stock Exchange, due to start trading in mid-2007.
Syria has maintained this momentum into this year. At the end of January, President Bashar al-Assad signed two decrees replacing 16-year-old legislation governing foreign investment. The new regulations allow domestic and overseas investors to own or lease land for their activities.
The decrees also create provisions for the repatriation of profits, dividends and invested capital, as long as all tax liabilities have been fulfilled, and for foreign workers to remit up to 50% of their earnings. Another incentive for investors is the waiving of Customs duties on equipment imported for use in their businesses.
Having been criticised in the past for the slow pace at which officials approve applications to establish projects in Syria, the new regulations enact an assessment regime designed to streamline the process. Under the new decree, any project application is deemed to have been granted a licence to operate unless the newly created Syrian Investment Authority raises an objection within 15 days.
Another step was the managed float of the Syrian pound, On January 13, the central bank governor, Adib al-Mayaleh, announced a shift from the currency being pegged to the US dollar to a mixed basket weighted at 44% euros, 34% US dollars and 11% each for pounds sterling and the yen.
Al-Mayaleh also announced that the government was drafting laws to allow for the issuing of treasury bills and other financial instruments and the opening up of private currency exchange bureaux.
On February 1, Amir Hosni Lutfi, Syria's minister of economy and trade, said the state and the private sector had to work together to raise productivity and improve quality to be able to compete in Arab and international markets.
The government is working to put in place the required rules to move into the social market economy, he told the Annual Conference of the Banking and Insurance Workers Union.
However, while Syria appears committed to developing a market economy, Lutfi said the government had no intention of completely taking its hands off the levers. He said the state would maintain balances on the prices of commodities and basic materials to ensure that the shift does not negatively affect low-income earners.
Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Ottri reinforced this message of cautious progress on January 28 during a meeting with Syrian business leaders in Damascus.
We have adopted a social market economy program and we believe we are on the right road, he said. Some say go for a savage market economy. We won't but there will be no retreat either. The incremental approach is aimed at avoiding a backlash.
At the same meeting, the finance minister, Mohammad al-Hussein, said the economy had reached a new level through clear and transparent dialogue between the government and the private sector.
However, that dialogue also included criticism of the government by private sector representatives over the slow pace of reforms in some areas, failures to provide infrastructure in industrial zones, and the lack of recognised arbitration mechanisms.
Even this could be seen as an indicator of the growing strength of the private sector, with criticism of the state previously being restricted.
The government still has to balance the interests of the public sector and its own desire to open up the economy with political forces within the country and the need to protect low- income earners. Caught in the middle of conflicting interests, the government appears committed to moving forward, at its own pace.