News Round Up (2 June 2008)

IAEA inspectors to visit Syria this month: "It has now been agreed that an (IAEA) team will visit Syria during the period June 22-24," El-Baradei told the agency's 35-member board of governors here. "I look forward to Syria's full cooperation in this matter."

He did not say whether Syria would allow inspectors to examine the al-Kibar site bombed by Israel in the country's remote northeast desert.

A Western diplomat said the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog, which also has a long-running investigation into Iran's shadowy nuclear programme, wanted to inspect not just al-Kibar but two other sites with possible nuclear links.

ElBaradei had said on May 7 that he hoped to be able to shed light "in the next few weeks" on whether the Syrian facility was a nuclear reactor that should have been declared to the IAEA under Damascus's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

Tzipi Livni: terrorist-hunter secret of woman tipped to lead Israel
London Times

Livni, who unlike her parents supports a Palestinian state, would be no soft touch as prime minister. “While Tzipi is willing to give up the West Bank to the Palestinians, she is a hawk when it comes to Syria and Iran,” said a leading political commentator. “She is against withdrawal from the Golan [Heights], and once prime minister she will want to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

The battle for Lebanon
By Elie al-Hajj
May 29, 2008

The battle for Lebanon is a battle between a relatively rich minority; numerically that is, among Lebanon’s four million people and a poor majority. The minority controls the political and economic fortunes of the country. On the other hand, the majority refuses to be dominated. The Lebanese divide is political and economic, not religious or sectarian; though, Lebanon is home to 18 different religious sects, all recognized in the Lebanese constitution. ….

Nuclear Syria, why not?
By Ahmad Mustafa, Special to Gulf News
June 1, 2008

Landis Comment: The following WSJ article seems to indicate that some right wingers are coming around to the need to negotiate with Hizbullah. Hizbullah's success in Lebanon, although being spun as "weakness," has convinced many that Hizbullah has shown considerable restraint in dealing with Lebanon's confessional mosaic. Far from being an unreasonable organization, it is interested in power sharing, can be reasoned with, and is not much different from the IRA. Although, Hizbullah's restraint perplexes Daniel Freedman, who believes that the Shiites should have tried to "conquer" Lebanon. His sneering tone is not attractive or helpful, but more important is his analysis, which is that the West must come to terms with Lebanon's Shiite leaders rather than kill them.

The US very intelligently refused to treat the IRA as a terrorist organization despite British insistence that it be proscribed as an evil criminal gang. Fortunately, the the US insisted on viewing the Irish Catholic struggle as political and not criminal. The result was successful diplomacy that helped resolve the dispute and transformed Ireland into one of the happier countries in the world with one of its zippiest economies. There is no reason Lebanon can not follow suit. Rashid's insistence that Lebanon's Shiites just want to "humiliate the Sunni enemy" is silly. Freedman's insistence that "the political process will gradually change [Hizbullah's] stated ideological aims" is smart.

Anyway, what other choice does Washington and Tel Aviv have but to negotiate with Hizbullah? War didn't work to destroy it. The build up of the Lebanese army as an instrument to disarm it failed. Only diplomacy is left.

The Axis of Weakness
By DANIEL FREEDMAN
FROM TODAY'S WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
June 2, 2008

In a Middle East full of dissenters and conspiracy theorists, there are usually at least ten interpretations of any noteworthy event. So perhaps most remarkable about Hezbollah's recent power play in Beirut is how uniform commentary has been. The conventional wisdom is that the deal to give Shiites more control in the central government is a victory for the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis and a defeat for Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, who support the Cedar Revolution.

But why, at the moment of Hezbollah's big military victory — when it had taken parts of Beirut and proved the army would not stand in its way — did it not finish its coup? The Lebanese government's attempt to shut down Hezbollah's telecoms network and remove a Hezbollah-friendly army commander from Beirut airport miserably failed. Why did Hezbollah only demand a new political settlement? Why wave the white flag when your opponents have laid down their arms? This doesn't add up.

Perhaps then Hezbollah's temporary seizure of Beirut wasn't so much a sign of the strength of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis as of its weakness. The "Party of God" may realize the axis with Tehran and particularly Damascus is not quite as strong as it appears. Seen in this light, the decision to secure tangible political gains while it still has military strength makes sense.

Syria's ongoing negotiations with Israel must worry Hezbollah. Any peace agreement that nets Damascus the Golan Heights would have to include a promise to abandon Hezbollah. If these talks don't bring a deal immediately, the fact that Damascus entertains the idea of cutting ties with Hezbollah must concentrate minds in South Lebanon.

Another sore point is the February assassination of Imad Mughniyah in Damascus, a key Hezbollah leader. Most fingers pointed at Israel. But there is another theory that the Syrians may have killed Mughniyah as a sign to Jerusalem of their sincere intentions.

The pressure on Syria to abandon Hezbollah is rising and coming not just from the West. The March Arab League summit in Damascus was boycotted by half of the leaders. This snub was not only a blow to Syrian prestige. It also showed how isolated Damascus is in the Arab world — a world it once hoped to lead. It was a signal that its gambit of creating a new regional alliance with Iran comes with a heavy price tag.

While Iran has no plans of making peace with Israel or abandoning Hezbollah, it would be difficult for Tehran to keep Hezbollah alive without Syrian help. If Damascus closed its border to Lebanon, it would cut off a key route for Iranian arms smuggling to Hezbollah. And Iran's financial support for the Shiite group is in the end no match for the kind of money Saudi Arabia can pour into Lebanon to counter Tehran's influence. Riyadh has indicated that it will increase its support for its Sunni allies in Lebanon.

Hezbollah may have also learned a lesson from recent events in Iraq, where the Iranian-backed militia headed by Muqtada al-Sadr has at least for now abandoned its fight and started negotiations with the government. Apparently, Iranian support was not enough to keep up al-Sadr's war.

Why should it be different in Lebanon? Although Hezbollah portrayed its recent war with Israel as a victory, it wasn't. The fight did serious damage to Hezbollah's military capabilities. And the Shiite group lost legitimacy among the Lebanese people for the way it acted, both in disregarding Lebanese lives and starting an unnecessary war.

The once dominant sentiment among all Lebanese that "everyone can get along because we are all Lebanese," is waning. Sunni citizens are increasingly wary of Hezbollah. The Shiite group therefore faces the prospect of a hostile Israel on one side, a Syria that is no longer its ally on another, and a third column of opponents within: Lebanon's Sunnis together with Druze and Christian populations who have their own problems with the Shiites.

Sensing the tide in Lebanon might be turning against it, it used the government's attempted crackdown as an excuse to take parts of Beirut to scare its opponents into accepting a new political reality. This new reality gives Shiites, and therefore Hezbollah, more power in the central government.

So perhaps what we are seeing is the beginning of the gradual transformation of Hezbollah into a predominately political actor. It won't be easy and it will take time. Just like Northern Ireland, where it took the IRA 10 years to decommission their arms.

Some people argue that given Hezbollah's ideological commitment to an Islamic Lebanon such a transformation could never happen. Well, in the Middle East, everyone promises never to negotiate with their enemies, but everyone has their price. The PLO promised to never recognize Israel. Israel promised never to recognize the PLO. And so on. While the PLO certainly didn't start off negotiating in good faith, the political process helped gradually changing their stated ideological aims. The same could potentially be true for Hezbollah.

If Hezbollah really is on the brink of what could turn out to be a seismic change, the U.S. should do everything to encourage this process. It should accept a greater role for Shiites in the Lebanese government as long as Hezbollah agrees to start, however gradually, decommissioning. Israel should also be allowed to negotiate seriously with Syria.

Much more is at stake than easing frictions at the Israeli-Lebanese and Israeli-Syrian borders. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. Separating Tehran from Damascus and Hezbollah would isolate and weaken the Islamic Republic at this crucial time. If we fail to do this, the conventional wisdom — that the recent Lebanese developments were a victory for the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-axis — may unfortunately turn out to be right.

Mr. Freedman was the foreign policy analyst for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Committee.

Liberalised Syria banks "on sound track" – report
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS, May 26 (Reuters) – Liberalisation is spurring rapid growth in Syrian banking but state banks still dominate the sector since it opened to private investment four years ago, a report by the Syria Report online newsletter said on Monday.

Syria, which has taken limited steps to open its economy after decades of nationalisation, now has nine private banks compared with six banks owned by the state. Another nine private banks are setting up in the country, the report said.

"The arrival of new players seems only to encourage an ever expanding market. Although a lot remains to be done, the liberalisation of Syria's banking sector is now on a sound track," said Syria Report, a Paris-based independent newsletter covering Syrian economics and finance.

The Baath Party government revamped investment laws last year but kept a 49 percent ceiling on foreign ownership of banks. The central bank is working on issuing treasury bills for the first time and Syrian businesses are now allowed to receive loans from foreign banks.

State banks held 82 percent of assets at the end of 2007 compared with 87 percent a year before. The government and a huge array of companies it owns still do business "almost exclusively" with state banks, although nothing in the law forced them to do so, the report said.

Total assets rose 12 percent last year to $34 billion, still 40 percent that of neighbouring Lebanon, which has a solid banking tradition and a financial secrecy code. Private Syrian bank assets rose 59 percent in 2007 compared with 5 percent growth in the balance sheet of state banks.

But a small capital base and restrictions on lending have kept loans by private banks small at $1.5 billion at the end of 2007, although the figure is almost double that of 2006, the report added.  Continued…

Syria's Assad dismisses Israel demands over Iran
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Wed May 28, 2008

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad dismissed on Tuesday Israeli demands for Syria to abandon an alliance with Iran as a requirement for a peace deal. Assad told British MPs that the Baath Party government intended to maintain its "normal relations" with Iran while it conducts indirect talks with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights, a source familiar with the meeting told Reuters.

IHT: U.S. could impede merger between MTN and Reliance
2008-05-26 08:56 (New York)

The South African telecommunications giant MTN Group and its Indian peer, Reliance Communications, said Monday that they were in exclusive talks for a tie-up – a deal that symbolizes the growing economic clout of emerging markets, but could still hit a wall with U.S. regulators.

Combining Reliance Communications and MTN Group would create a juggernaut with 115 million customers, more than most European mobile phone businesses have and more than every U.S. one has. Getting funding for a full-fledged deal could be complicated, though, because of economic sanctions imposed by Washington on the countries where MTN does business, including Iran.

A merger or takeover of MTN, which has a market capitalization of $38.2 billion, is expected to require any partner to raise tens of billions of dollars in cash. A problem may arise, though, because the U.S. banks that arrange and finance many of the world's largest corporate transactions may be restricted from the deal.

The obstacle, at least for regulators in Washington, lies in the fact that MTN has a sizable and fast-growing presence in Iran, Sudan and Syria.The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which was created in 1950 to freeze Chinese and North Korean assets when the Chinese entered the Korean War, monitors bank activities in sanctioned countries closely.

MTN's business in Iran is new but growing quickly. At the end of 2007, MTN had six million subscribers in Iran and 3.1 customers million in Syria, where the United States has some financial restrictions……

Syria: Taxing Times
Oxford Business Group
May 26, 2008

Syria is to impose a flat rate value added tax (VAT) next year as part of the government's ongoing programme to open up the economy and boost state revenues, though the exact details of what the tax will cover and what goods and services will be exempt have yet to be decided.

On May 17, Mohammed Al Hussein, Syria's finance minister, announced that a 10% VAT would be introduced in 2009. Basic food items would not be included in the new scheme, he said, though it was possible that other rates could be applied to certain categories.

The move is particularly bold since the Syrian public is already struggling with rising costs and shortages in the marketplace. While a recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted consumer inflation would come in at 7% this year, spiralling fuel and food prices may well see this ceiling broken.

Popular or not, the Syrian government needs to increase its revenue base. With oil stocks dwindling, Hussein said that earnings from oil now represented just 20% of state income, down from around 70% at the beginning of the decade. …..

"VAT could play a catalytic role in nurturing a taxpaying culture, due to the built-in incentive to comply with it. If well designed, VAT could yield 1.8% of GDP for each five percentage points for the rate," the IMF said in its 2006 report.

However, in its 2007 report, the fund warned that an ill-prepared launch could damage the credibility of the new tax, and said a number of steps, including the adoption of a tax procedures code and an integrated information technology system, had to be completed before such a tax could be implemented successfully.

The fund also called for any VAT to be imposed on almost all goods and services, saying that instead of limiting its coverage to a few sectors to shield the poor from price increases, adopting near universal coverage and providing targeted spending programmes and progressive income taxes would be a better approach.

The decision to impose VAT will in some measure offset the reductions in private income tax announced in 2003 and amended in 2006. The cuts, which saw the highest rate of income tax lowered from 63% to 28%, were intended to serve as an incentive for private sector companies and individuals to pay taxes, as well as to stimulate economic growth and investment.

According to figures released by Hussein, the tax cuts and reductions in Customs duties on many goods have achieved the desired result. Tax revenues for 2007 amounted to $6.43bn, or 17% of gross domestic product (GDP), up from just $3.5bn in 2000, he said.

In his May 17 briefing, Hussein predicted a deficit of $3.82bn for the 2008 budget, some 9.8% of GDP, though he said the government hoped to bring this down to around 7%.

While highlighting the need for more sources of revenue, Hussein's prediction was wide of the mark projected by the IMF in a report issued earlier the same month, which had suggested the government aim for a deficit of 5%. The Syrian government may not be as optimistic as the IMF about its ability to trim expenditures and increase income, or may be anticipating a greater outlay for the year than had previously been expected.

Oil subsidies bill posts sharp increase in first quarter (From the Syria Report): Mahrukat, the state-owned company in charge of distributing oil products, posted a net deficit of SYP 104 billion in the first quarter of this year, a dramatic 3-digit percentage surge from a year earlier. Read

Comments (47)


1. norman said:

If Syria is going to impose VAT it should exempt food and clothes and probably should start with something more reasonable like 4% then increase it if they need to , establishing the tax is first priority then can manipulate it to increase spending or saving ,

Syria should move to tax real estate after the first house which will exempt most people and tax people who park their money in real estate .

Any thoughts ?.

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June 3rd, 2008, 2:55 am

 

2. Alex said:

Joshua … I removed part of your post because it had bad code. It messed up the blog.

Here it is (if you want to copy it form here and post it again.

Saudi clerics criticize Shiites for destabilizing
By DONNA ABU-NASR
Associated Press Writer

Hardline Sunni clerics accused Shiites Sunday of destabilizing Muslim countries and humiliating Sunnis, just days before a Muslim interfaith conference called by Saudi Arabia’s king.

The attacks on Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah – though contrary to official policy – highlight the sharp, growing distrust between Islam’s two arms, and its potential to cause more unrest.

In a strongly worded statement, the 22 clerics savaged Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants, saying the Lebanese Shiite group has tricked other Muslims into believing it is against Jews and Americans…..

Najib al-Khonaizi, a Saudi Shiite writer, called the statement “dangerous” and damaging to national unity.

“This statement in its essence is a cheap call for incitement,” he told the AP. Shiites make up an estimated 10-15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 22 million people

The statement is potentially embarrassing for the government because it comes a few days before the opening of a much-touted Muslim interfaith conference in the holy city of Mecca that aims at closing Muslim ranks and discussing dialogue with other faiths. Over 500 Islamic scholars – reportedly including former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani – are expected to attend the three-day conference, which begins Wednesday.

The event is the first step of a wider interfaith dialogue between Muslims and adherents of other religions, notably Christians and Jews, that King Abdullah called for a few months ago….

Some Arab media outlets and Web sites have portrayed the Lebanese street fights as a Shiite incursion against Sunnis – a claim Hezbollah has denied. They have also said that Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, have lost the admiration they won across the Arab world when the group bombarded northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets during a 34-day war with Israel in summer 2006.

“Today, more than 200 million Arabs see him (Nasrallah) as fighting the Sunni enemy,” wrote Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, head of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper a week after violence erupted in Lebanon.

“Nasrallah … has pushed the region into a Sunni-Shiite conflict for at least the next 10 years, not only in Lebanon, but also in the rest of the Arab and perhaps Islamic world,” he added. “Millions of Sunnis feel that he has gone too far in humiliating Sunnis.”

Syria radio and TV is finally available for streaming over the internet. http://www.rtv.gov.sy/

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June 3rd, 2008, 3:47 am

 

3. Alex said:

In Arabic, from Alhayat

Peace deal with Syria almost finalized … it requires more weeks!

«كل شيء بات متفقاً عليه» هكذا يرى الرئيس السابق لحزب «ميرتس» يوسي بيلين. ووجهة النظر هذه يؤكد عليها أكثر من طرف مطلع على ملف المفاوضات، وربما ينطلق البعض أيضاً من أن اولمرت سيوافق على أن تبدأ المفاوضات من النقطة التي انتهت إليها عام 2001. كما أن الأصوات التي تحدثت عن «وديعة رابين» التي كان قد قدمها الأخير الى الرئيس السوري الراحل حافظ الأسد، عبر وزير الخارجية الأميركي، وارن كريستوفر، تدرك ان القضايا التي بحثت سابقاً باتت جاهزة في مسودة الاتفاق.

من وجهة نظر يوسي بيلين، الذي كان نائب وزير في حكومة رابين وشريكاً أساسياً في ملفات التفاوض فإن اسبوعين من المفاوضات فترة كافية للتوصل الى اتفاق. ويفسر بيلين إعلان ايهود اولمرت بضرورة سرية المفاوضات وإدارتها بعيداً من الإعلام بالقول: «إن السر الأكثر كتماناً هو حقيقة أنه لا توجد عملياً حاجة الى المفاوضات، بل الى فتح ملف شبردستاون والى شجاعة سياسية». وبيلين كالكثير من المحللين والخبراء على قناعة أن النسبة العالية من الإسرائيليين المعارضين للانسحاب من الجولان سرعان ما ستتراجع مع الإعلان عن التوصل الى اتفاق يبعث الطمانينة لدى الإسرائيليين. وفي هذا المجال يقول بيلين: «العواطف تجاه الجولان ستنقلب في اللحظة التي سيحصل فيها اتفاق مع سورية تماماً كما كان الوضع في الاتفاق حول شبه جزيرة سيناء قبل اتفاقات كامب ديفيد إذ عارض الاتفاق قبل التوصل إليه سبعون في المئة من الإسرائيليين ولكن سبعين في المئة أيدوه بعد نشر تفاصيله». وبرأي بيلين فإن الإسرائيليين المعارضين لهذا الاتفاق حالياً سيغيرون موقفهم في اللحظة التي يفهمون أن مثل هذا الاتفاق سينهي الإحساس بالحصار على إسرائيل، وأنه سيكون بوسعهم السفر بسياراتهم شمالاً عبر سورية وتركيا الى قلب أوروبا، وهم سيفهمون أن الحديث يدور هنا عن تغيير إقليمي، وليس فقط عن تنازل عن مكان جميل في مقابل قطعة ورق.

ويرى بيلين أن تخوف الإسرائيليين من وصول السوريين الى بحيرة طبريا للسباحة هو تفكير صبياني ويقول: «الميزة الاستراتيجية الهائلة للسلام مع سورية لا يمكن قياسها بالإحساس غير المريح بأن السوريين يمكنهم أن يصلوا الى البحيرة، مثلما فعلوا قبل حرب الأيام الستة».

ومن بين ما يطرحه المطلعون على الملف السوري منذ أكثر من خمسة عشر عاماً أن الاتفاق الذي قد يتوصل إليه طرفا التفاوض سيوجد وضعية لبحيرة طبريا شبيهة بوضعية طابا اليوم، إذ يمكن للإسرائيليين التجول حولها من دون تأشيرة دخول، على رغم أن السيادة عليها ستكون لسورية.

أما المستوطنات في الهضبة فستخلى، فيما الاتفاق على توزيع المياه سيضمن عدم المس بمياه إسرائيل.

ويدرك الإسرائيليون تماماً أن سورية لن تقبل بسلام من دون الجولان، وأبرز هؤلاء، ايتان هابر المدير السابق لمكتب اسحق رابين والذي شارك في المفاوضات مع سورية، ويقول: «الرئيس السوري لن يقبل التوقيع على سلام مع إسرائيل من دون الانسحاب حتى آخر سنتمتر من ارض الجولان. وبرأيه فإن هذه المفاوضات ستحرز إنجازات كبيرة يكون تطبيق الانسحاب فيها شبيهاً بما حدث في سيناء وقطاع غزة». ويقول: «صباح يوم قريب سينهض الإسرائيليون، وعلى رأسهم مستوطنو الجولان، على وقع بيان دراماتيكي يبشرهم بما قد يحصل تماماً، كما حصل مع بيغن ومع رابين وشارون في فك الارتباط عن غزة».

وينطلق هابر بتوقعاته هذه من حديث كان شاهداً عليه بين قائد مصري واسحق رابين عندما أوضح المصري انه لا يمكن للأسد أن يتنازل عن سنتمتر واحد في الجولان لأنه سيسأل حينئذ من الملايين وعن حق: لماذا انتظرتم 30 سنة بعد السلام مع مصر حتى تحصلوا على أقل مما حصل عليه المصريون؟

ويرد هابر على هذه التساؤلات بالقول: «أي قائد عربي اليوم لا يستطيع أن يسمح لنفسه بالحصول على ما هو أقل من الكل. لا يمكن لأي قائد عربي أن يقبل بأقل من متر واحد مما حصل عليه أنور السادات في 1979».
نقطة مراقبة للأمم المتحدة في الجولان
نقطة مراقبة للأمم المتحدة في الجولان

والإسرائيليون من مؤيدين ومعارضين على قناعة بأن سلاماً مع سورية من دون فك الشراكة مع «حزب الله» وإيران سيضر بإسرائيل. وبرأي مدير المفاوضات مع سورية عام 1991، يوسي بن اهـــرون، فإن الرئيـــــس بشار الأسد سيكمل طريق والــــده، ويقول: «بفــــضل مدريد والمفاوضات مع إسرائيل، نجح حافظ الأسد في الحفاظ على مكانتـــه في الغرب، على رغم سيطرته على لبنان وتأييده «الإرهاب» الفلسطيني، والحلف الذي كان له مع الاتحاد السوفياتي»، على حد تعبير بن اهرون، الذي يضيف: «منذ ذلك الوقت تعمقت جداً علاقات سورية مع إيران، التي حلت محل الاتحاد السوفياتي، وبالتوازي تعاظمت عزلة سورية بسبب الدور السلبي الذي تقوم به في لبنان وفي العراق». ومن وجهة نظر بن اهرون فإن الأسد نجح حتى الآن بتحقيق إنجازات كبـــيرة في مقابــل خسارة إسرائيل، إذ ان المفاوضات مع إسرائيل تساعده على إعادة بناء شرعية في بلاده ومن دون دفع أي ثمن، وفي المقابل دفعت إسرائيل ثمناً مزدوجاً، إذ وافقت على مفاوضات غير مباشرة بينما في مدريد أجرت مفاوضات مباشرة، وفي مقابل دخولها الى مفاوضات مع سورية لم تنفذ الأخيرة أية خطوات تبعدها عن دورها المركزي في «محور الشر».

وإذا كان بن اهرون يعتبر هذه النقاط إنجازات لسورية فإن الباحث في معهد الأمن القومي في جامعة حيفا، دان شيفتان، يرى أن مفاوضات سلام مع سورية تساعد دمشق على القيام بخطوات اكثر تطرفاً من اليوم إذ يمكنها القيام بخطوات علنية نفذتها على مدار سنوات طويلة في شكل سري وفي مقدمها دعم «حزب الله» وتزويده بالأسلحة وتطوير برنامجها النووي. وأما على الصعيد الإقليمي فيرى شيفتان أن مفاوضات سلام مع سورية ستساهم في عرقلة عملية استقلال لبنان إذ أن الاحتمال بأن تبتعد سورية عن إيران و «حزب الله» و «حماس» ضئيل جداً.

ومن وجهة نظر شيفتان فإن سورية رغبت في المفاوضات مع إسرائيل لتحقيق أهداف كبيرة لها، مع إدراكها ان مثل هذه المفاوضات قد لا تحرز نتائج.

وبرأيه أن سورية تنظر الى سيطـــرتها على لبنان كخطوة حيـــوية لأمنـــها القومي، ولضـــمان هذا الأمن تسعى الـــى أيجاد توازن داخلي في لبـــــــــنان بين «حزب الله» والمــــوالاة من سنة ومسيحيين ودروز وبالتالي سيكون من الصعب رؤية لبنان في المستقبل، دولة مستقلة وبناءة».

ويحذر شيفتان إسرائيل ورئيس الحكومة ايهود اولمرت، من المقارنة بين المفاوضات التي حصلت مع الأردن ومصر والمفاوضات التي تجري اليوم مع سورية ويقول: «الأسد ليس الملك حسين ولا ابنه عبدالله وليس أيضاً مصر أنور السادات ولا حسني مبارك. الأسد هو ياسر عرفات وخالد مشعل والأسد هو إيران الخميني وأحمدي نجاد وهو عراق صدام حسين».

تؤثر هذه الأصوات، المؤيدة والمعارضة للسلام مع سورية في الرأي العام لكن الأساس يبقى وضعية اولمرت. فهل هو قادر على إدارة مفاوضات مصيرية في الوقت الذي تتسع المطالبة بإسقاطه بسبب التحقيقات حول قضايا الرشوة والفساد؟

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June 3rd, 2008, 4:39 am

 

4. Averroes said:

Dr. Landis,

I agree with what you said. The Saudis are crossing lines that they never before did in public. The loud, almost hysterical media onslaught pumped daily by Al-Rashid and co. is-in my opinion-a sign of desperation more than anything else. Today, Tariq Hameed (Asharq Alawsat) is openly calling for the Sunnis on Lebanon to “stockpile arms and get ready”.

They want a sectarian civil war so bad that they can’t hide it anymore.

There is talk that the orchestrated Saudi clerics statement coincides with a large budget that’s been assigned to a massive smearing campaign against Shiites and Shiism. Yesterday’s bombing attempts in Lebanon are probably best viewed in light of that. Already, rag tag statements from so called “Lebanese Resistance” are being circulated calling for freeing of Beirut and Southern Lebanon from al-Rafidha al-Majous, trademark Saudi Wahabi anti-Shiite terminology.

Now we can expect to see TV programs popping up with Shiite clerics rabidly swearing at the prophet’s companions and at his wife, Aisha, in spins to enrage the Sunni public. We can expect Shiite ‘moderates’ to start popping up, talking about the Iranian and Hizbullah dangers. The Saudis are pretty generous when it comes to spreading hate. Saudi money is behind all that.

No matter how sick and outrageous the sectarian twists the Saudis are certain to pump out in the coming months, there are those that will fall for them. This is why I think that Syria should not leave the media front unanswered.

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June 3rd, 2008, 4:51 am

 

5. Shai said:

Averroes,

Do you think this could be sign for Saudi knowledge that something is “in the air”? Specifically, that perhaps Bush is planning to hit Iran before year’s end? Are there hints of overconfidence which might be explained in ways other than desperation? Of course, we’ll never really know, but if Iran is attacked, Saudi might be trying to prepare the Sunni world for a possible “Clash of Sects”? This is pure speculation, and I of course hope it’s nothing more than that, but how do you read the map?

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June 3rd, 2008, 7:36 am

 

6. offended said:

Al Jarallah (neighbour of Allah??) of Al Seyassah has a remarkable change in his tone: he goes on to describe the Syrian foreigon policy as “wise” and “transparent”. I agree with him on that of course, but I am just curious about the reasons for such shift. Such cheap journalists do not prostitute their pens for free.

لا أحد يريد لسورية أن تكون بعيدة عن فضائها العربي, ولا أحد أيضا يريد لسورية ونظامها أن يغردا خارج السرب العربي.
تلك حقيقة راسخة نرددها ويرددها عالمنا العربي, وعلى سورية ونظامها أن يدركا جيدا تلك الحقيقة, وان أحدا من خارج لغة »الضاد« لن يفيدها ولن يقف الى جانبها ولو قيد أنملة عندما تقع الفأس على الرأس.

حسناً فعلت سورية عندما أعلنت انها تجري مفاوضات مع الدولة العبرية لاسترداد الجولان, وهو اعتراف ينسجم مع ما انسجم معه العرب والعالم وهو ستراتيجية السلام التي ينبغي التأكيد ان الرابح فيها هم العرب قبل غيرهم, والزمن المقبل سيثبت ذلك.

ربحت مصر من ستراتيجية السلام مع إسرائيل, رغم أننا قسونا على مصر وعلى رئيسها الراحل أنور السادات, قسونا عليه بغباء وثبت لاحقا أن مرئياته كانت هي الصواب.

لقد شعرنا بشفافية الديبلوماسية السورية وهي تعلن أنها تجري محادثات مع إسرائيل لاستعادة أرضها… وشعرنا بحكمة ذلك الموقف الذي يؤكد أن قوة الحق أقوى من السلاح.

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June 3rd, 2008, 9:43 am

 

7. offended said:

Alex, can you please release my earlier comment from the spam filter?
It has a link to Al Seyassa front page, A MUST SEE!

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June 3rd, 2008, 9:47 am

 

8. Naji said:

Peace Fills a Vacuum
Intent on isolating its foes, the United States has instead ended up marginalizing itself.

By HUSSEIN AGHA and ROBERT MALLEY
Op-Ed Contributors, NYT
June 3, 2008

IN the last few weeks, three long-frozen conflicts in the Middle East have displayed early signs of thawing. Israel and Hamas may be inching toward a cease-fire that would end attacks by both sides and, perhaps, loosen the siege imposed on the impoverished Gaza Strip. The factions in Lebanon, after a long period of institutional paralysis and a near civil war, have reached a tentative political agreement. And eight years after their last negotiations, Israel and Syria have announced the resumption of indirect peace talks.

That so many parties are moving at the same time in so many arenas is noteworthy enough. That they are doing so without — and, in some cases, despite — the United States is more remarkable still.

The Gaza deal is being brokered by Egypt. Qatar mediated the Lebanese accord. Turkey is shepherding the Israeli-Syrian contacts. All three countries are close allies of the United States. Under normal circumstances, they would be loath to act on vital regional matters without America’s consent.

Yet in these cases they seem to have ignored Washington’s preferences. The negotiations either involved parties with whom the United States refuses to talk, initiated a process the United States opposes or produced an outcome harmful to its preferred local allies.

The region is in a mess, and Washington’s allies know it. They privately blame the United States and have given up waiting for the Bush administration to offer them a way out.

By acting as they did, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey gave the true measure of America’s dwindling credibility and leverage after American debacles in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. They are willing to take matters into their own hands and overlook American ambivalence about their doing so.

Intent on isolating its foes, the United States has instead ended up marginalizing itself. In one case after another, the Bush administration has wagered on the losing party or on a lost cause.

Israel wants to deal with Hamas because it — not America’s Palestinian partners — possesses what Israel most wants: the ability to end the violence and to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Israel has come around to dealing with Syria because Damascus — not America’s so-called moderate Arab allies — holds the crucial cards: Syria has a clear strategy of alliance with Iran; it supports the more powerful forces on the ground in Lebanon; and it provides refuge to opposition and Islamist forces in Palestine.

Likewise, America’s Lebanese friends had to give in to Hezbollah’s demands once it became clear that the support of the United States could not undo their country’s balance of power. Meanwhile, the process President Bush seems to care about most — that elusive Israeli-Palestinian track — is also the least likely to go anywhere.

The United States has cut itself off from the region on the dubious assumption that it can somehow maximize pressure on its foes by withholding contact, choosing to flaunt its might in the most primitive and costly of ways. It has pushed its local allies toward civil wars — arming Fatah against Hamas; financing some Lebanese forces against Hezbollah — they could not and did not win. And it has failed to understand that its partners could achieve more in alliance than in conflict with their opposition.

How much more powerful would Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and leader of Fatah, have been if, at the head of a national unity coalition, he could deliver a truce and Corporal Shalit to Israel while simultaneously broadening the support he needs to sell a peace agreement? How much stronger would Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon and his colleagues have been had they agreed two years ago to the very power-sharing accord they were forced to swallow last month?

Many questions surround these three still-incomplete deals. They could collapse or move in unintended directions. They may end up serving a quite different purpose, like constraining Syria’s, Hezbollah’s or Hamas’s ability to retaliate in the event of an American or Israeli attack against Iran. On all this there is understandable uncertainty.

But for now at least, there’s no great mystery about where the United States stands. At a critical time in a critical region, it is quite simply missing in action.

Hussein Agha is the author, with Ahmed S. Khalidi, of “A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine.” Robert Malley, the director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group, was a special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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June 3rd, 2008, 10:03 am

 

9. EHSANI2 said:

How about the IAEA making a stopover in Israel as they pay a visit to inspect the Syrian Site?

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June 3rd, 2008, 12:32 pm

 

10. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

I think that would be a good idea. There is a lot to see and learn in Israel.

Next time, don’t sign the NPT.

But what is your point exactly Ehsani? That if Israel has nuclear weapons then it is ok for Syria to disregard international law and have them too? Doesn’t look like a principled position to me.

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June 3rd, 2008, 12:59 pm

 

11. norman said:

Syria says wants nuclear energy under Arab umbrella

Reuters
Tuesday, June 3, 2008; 7:57 AM

DUBAI (Reuters) – Syria is not seeking nuclear weapons but wants to have access to atomic energy for peaceful purposes through a collective Arab project, President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks published on Tuesday.

The Dubai-based Gulf News also quoted Assad as saying that the United States should have sought an investigation of a Syrian facility suspected of housing a secret nuclear plant before it was destroyed in an Israeli air raid last September.

“Acquiring nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is an international trend that all countries are rightfully pursuing. In Syria, we want this to be done within an Arab context, which was discussed and agreed during the Arab Summit in Riyadh,” he said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

Gulf Arabs have announced their own plans to develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes following a 2007 Arab summit that called on Arabs to develop atomic power.

U.S. intelligence officials in April said they believed Syria had built the suspected reactor with the assistance of North Korea, which later also helped in cleaning up the site after the Israeli strike.

Syria has denied having any undeclared nuclear program. It has one old research reactor subject to monitoring by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

“If anyone had a secret dossier on nuclear facilities in Syria with a Korean role, as they claim, then why did they wait for seven months before destroying a normal military facility by the Israeli raid?” Assad said. “Why did they not resort to the UN nuclear energy organization to carry out an inspection?”

The IAEA director, Mohamed ElBaradei, said on Monday a team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog will visit Syria June 22-24 to pursue an investigation into the suspected reactor site.

The United States urged Syria to cooperate with U.N. inspectors and to allow Syrian officials to be interviewed.

ElBaradei did not say whether Syria, which had not responded for months to IAEA requests for access, would allow U.N. investigators to examine the al-Kibar site in northeastern Syria.

But a senior diplomat close to the Vienna-based IAEA said a team led by its inspections director Olli Heinonen expected to go to al-Kabir and would seek information on, or access to, three other sites with a possible nuclear link.

He suggested the point in checking other sites was to look for indications of facilities to process nuclear material — based on the unverified U.S. intelligence — since there was no evidence of a plutonium fuel source next to the alleged reactor site.

Heinonen’s delegation will bring equipment designed to detect nuclear activity, the senior diplomat added.

(Reporting by Inal Ersan in Damascus and Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Editing by Sami Aboudi)

© 2008 Reuters

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June 3rd, 2008, 1:02 pm

 

12. Orientalista said:

Gerry Adams and Nasrallah both rock quite the beard, so I think the analogy holds.

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June 3rd, 2008, 1:08 pm

 

13. EHSANI2 said:

So, it is all about that signiture?

Had Syria not signed, developing a nuclear weapon would have been okay by your book right?

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June 3rd, 2008, 1:55 pm

 

14. Qifa Nabki said:

Keep expectations low for a Golan deal
By Hasan Abu Nimah
Tuesday, June 03, 2008

There was a surprise announcement recently that the Syrians and Israelis had started indirect peace negotiations under Turkish patronage in Istanbul. That was confirmed in both countries’ capitals soon afterward. Almost simultaneously, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the two sides had already reached an understanding as a result of secret talks in Europe two years earlier, between September 2004 and July 2006, and that they would sign an agreement of principles – and once they had fulfilled their commitments, a peace agreement.

On May 21, the newspaper also published a summary of the agreement in an article by Akiva Eldar, with a link to the full text. The terms include an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of June 4, 1967, without agreement on a timetable for withdrawal. Syria has demanded five years while Israel wants it to be 15. Although Syrian sovereignty would be acknowledged on the evacuated land, the agreement includes the establishment of a public park on a “significant area of the Golan” for joint Syrian-Israeli use; but the Israeli presence there “will not be dependent on Syrian approval.”

The agreement, described as an unsigned “non-paper,” also mentions a demilitarized zone on the Golan; a buffer zone in between the two sides on the basis of a ratio of 1:4 in terms of territory in Israel’s favor; and Israeli control over the use of the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias.

If this is what Israel means by withdrawal from the Golan Heights, then one should understand the leaks toward the end of last month from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in that light. The Syrian daily Al-Watan revealed on April 23 that Erdogan had informed Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was prepared to evacuate the entire Golan in exchange for a peace agreement. This agreement was linked to Syria’s ending support for Hizbullah and for Hamas, and its scaling down of relations with Iran.

Given Israel’s negotiating style, it was hard to take the offer at face value. Israel never reveals its negotiating cards in advance. Quite the opposite: The Israelis negotiate hardest on matters they would normally be willing to concede, in order to strengthen their position with respect to the more difficult issues. But if the recent Olmert offer was based on a so-called non-paper, and if the Istanbul talks are meant to proceed on that basis, the matter could be different, although it is hard to believe that Syria would consider such an arrangement as the basis for a final settlement. Replacing the occupation with a shared public park, with no Syrian control on access, renders any claim of sovereignty worthless.

Olmert was criticized at home for the Syrian negotiations surprise. Some accused him of trying to divert attention away from the criminal investigation into his controversial financial deals. There was also a possibility that the Syrian opening was intended to serve as a cover for the apparent failure of the Palestinian track, where Israel has not offered any concessions. Olmert, since the Annapolis conference and before, was under severe pressure not even to talk about final status issues with the Palestinians. Israeli settlement activity has also continued at full speed. It is likely, therefore, that opening a new track with the Syrians, with talks that could drag on endlessly and without much commitment on the part of the Israelis, may offer a convenient, though temporary distraction.

The response from Washington has already been lukewarm, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice affirming that the Palestinian-Israeli track is “the most mature track.” Rice did not, however, explicitly discourage talks. The question is whether Washington is prepared to allow Syria, through its engagement of Israel, to place itself in a better position internationally. No doubt the Syrians view the renewed talks – even if they hold little or no promise of success – as an opportunity to end its isolation as well.

The recent Doha agreement among conflicting Lebanese factions was another development possibly in Syria’s favor, with its allies in Lebanon gaining good ground as a result. This could lead to a substantial reduction in the diplomatic pressure on Syria. But will this be acceptable to Washington? Some analysts doubt that any results will emerge from the Syrian-Israeli talks before President George W. Bush leaves office.

There is no doubt that serious talks between Syria and Israel with the objective of reaching a final settlement would be a major breakthrough. It would be an important step that contributes substantially to peace and stability in the region, and it will have a positive effect on the other negotiating tracks. However, and unfortunately, the new enterprise is surrounded by dubious signs and uncertain circumstances.

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June 3rd, 2008, 2:22 pm

 

15. Qifa Nabki said:

U.S.-Iran regional power plays shift

By Scott Peterson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 30, 2008 edition

Istanbul, Turkey – A string of events across the Middle East is shifting the US-Iran regional power play. The Iran-led “axis of resistance” arrayed against the US, its Western allies, and Israel may appear ascendant, but new chances for peace could also redefine the game in the US’s favor.

Syria and Israel announced last week that they had secretly resumed talking peace, through Turkish mediators, for the first time in eight years – each one crossing a divide forbidden by their own rhetoric. Few expect immediate progress. But the fact that a strategic ally of Iran – and of anti-Israel militants Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – is meeting with Israel is prompting speculation about potential change.

“There is a contest going on, an ideological battle, which spills over into proxies and military fighting,” says Rami Khouri, head of the Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. “It’s not as simple as saying it’s an Iran-American confrontation, but they are the two symbolic poles of these different groups.”

A further notable event is the recent Arab League-brokered deal in Qatar between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Lebanon’s pro-Western government, which ended an 18-month political stalemate on Hezbollah’s terms, as well as days of violence that cost 65 lives.

And in Iraq – where the US accuses Iran of exercising “malign influence” by arming and training militants – Iraqi soldiers deployed relatively peacefully into the Baghdad stronghold of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Iran played a role in getting Mr. Sadr’s Shiite militia off the streets and ending fierce fighting that left more than 1,000 dead over the past two months.

On the peace track, Israel declared that Syria would have to cut ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas to regain the Golan Heights, occupied by the Jewish state since 1967. Syria rejected that demand outright, and instead on Wednesday signed a new defense agreement with Tehran.

“It won’t be like the Israelis want, which is a complete break. That is completely out of the question [for Syria],” says Mr. Khouri, a former editor of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper. “But an adjustment is very likely, because a Syria-Israel peace will axiomatically mean that a Lebanon-Israel peace will … follow very quickly, and that would have huge implications for Hezbollah’s rationale as an armed resistance movement.”

Iran offer to United Nations

News of the Syria-Israel talks came as an Iranian offer addressed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, dated May 13 and called a “proposed package for constructive negotiations,” was made public.

The proposal said Iran was willing to start talks on issues from its nuclear program to a “just peace … in regions that suffer from instability, militarism, violence, and terrorism,” according to an unofficial translation. Iran would cooperate to “assist the Palestinian people to find a comprehensive plan” that was “sustainable, democratic, and fair” – effectively a peace deal with Israel, without using either word in the text.

“It’s a significant departure in foreign policy. I think they are serious,” says a political scientist in Tehran, who asked not to be named. “There is a sense of compromise [from Iran, born] primarily out of self-confidence. They think that they won in Lebanon; that they won in Iraq to a large degree. There is deadlock on the nuclear issue [so] it’s a good time to be a little more soft and compromising.”

Iran may also be looking beyond the US election, this analyst says. “This is part of an overall approach that may be a prelude … to show the next president that Iran could be worked with,” he says. “If you are serious and treat Iran with dignity … there could be windfalls in other areas as well.”

Analysts in Beirut and Tehran say Iran is not likely to prevent a Syrian peace with Israel, in the same way that – despite continuous lambasting of Israel – Iran has often stated that it will not undermine any peace deal acceptable to Palestinians.

“Peace with Syria would break up the current strategic situation because it would isolate Iran and silence Hezbollah,” Israeli infrastructure minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel public radio on Tuesday. “We are talking about a true peace, an end to hostilities, an opening of the borders, and Israel is ready to pay the price for such a peace and coexistence with Syria.”

But the weak government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not likely to be able to deliver.

“The only way to divide Tehran from Damascus is to give Damascus back all of the Golan Heights,” says Toby Dodge, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Then things start to look much, much different. And that series of victories for Hezbollah, Damascus, and Tehran start to look less triumphant.”

But noting that Iran serves as Syria’s strategic depth, Mr. Dodge says he “would be surprised if [Syria] did get peeled away” from Iran.

Even if Syria were willing, “it’s down to the Israeli government to be secure in itself, not just in its political sense, but in its existential sense, to do that deal,” adds Dodge. “And I see no Israeli government [now] that can do that.”

Three parallel tracks

Beyond that, Hezbollah’s top priority is domestic politics, Syria’s is the Golan, while Iran aspires to regional dominance.

“You have three parallel … tracks, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. They are all mutually dependent and mutually supportive, but all have independent aspirations,” says Dodge. “The axis is created through a unity of common interests. And if you were sitting in Washington … you would seek to work against the axis by seeking individual and not collective interests.”

President Bashar al-Assad said Syria’s ties with Iran would not weaken, telling British parliamentarians this week that “if Israel could question Syria’s relations with Iran, then Syria could question Israel’s ties with other countries, particularly the United States,” a source familiar with the Damascus meeting told Reuters.

Still, Iran has moved fast to reinforce the resolve of the “axis of resistance.” In Lebanon this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the Qatar agreement, which essentially granted Hezbollah veto power over decisions of the pro-West government, showed “greatly weakened” US influence.

In Tehran, Iran’s defense deal with Syria on Wednesday pledged “mutual support regarding territorial independence,” and called for withdrawal of “foreign and occupation forces, which are the source of insecurity and instability in the region.”

President Ahmadinejad told Syria’s visiting defense minister, Hassan Turkmani, that Syria “will not abandon the front line until the complete removal of the Zionist threats.”

Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, echoed that theme, telling visiting Hamas chief Khaled Meshal that the “Zionist regime is at its lowest ebb,” thanks to Palestinian militancy.

And in Lebanon this week, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah marked the eight years since Israel’s withdrawal, noting that negotiations “did not return to Lebanon a single inch of land” – only armed resistance brought “victory.”

“There are two dreams; a Lebanese dream and an American dream,” Mr. Nasrallah said. “The Lebanese dream speaks about a calm and peaceful summer and the American dream speaks about a hot summer,” he added. “Come and let us realize our dreams, and not the dreams of our enemies.”

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June 3rd, 2008, 2:30 pm

 

16. Qifa Nabki said:

Assad to Announce from Baabda Exchange of Ambassadors

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly decided to postpone an official visit to Lebanon that was scheduled for mid-June until the end of his Arab tour.

The daily As Safir said Tuesday Assad’s visit will be a turning point in the history of Lebanese-Syrian relations where the Syrian president is expected to announce from the Presidential Palace in Baabda normalization of relations between the two neighboring countries, including the exchange of ambassadors.

Citing well-informed Lebanese sources, the daily said Damascus, which had sent an invitation to Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to visit Syria, has decided to convey similar invitations to a number of Lebanese leaders.

The sources said Aoun accepted the invitation and promised to visit Damascus once Assad ends his Lebanon trip.

Assad, who arrived in Abu Dhabi Sunday, is due to visit Kuwait on Tuesday.

He also visited Dubai, where he met with the emirate’s ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum, who is also UAE vice president and prime minister.

The two leaders discussed “the peace process in the Middle East” and the situation in the Arab world, WAM said. They hailed the recent Lebanese reconciliation accord and the launch of a peace process in Lebanon.

Beirut, 03 Jun 08, 11:19

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June 3rd, 2008, 2:36 pm

 

17. Naji said:

Peace Fills a Vacuum
Intent on isolating its foes, the United States has instead ended up marginalizing itself. It has failed to understand that its partners could achieve more in alliance than in conflict with their opposition.

By HUSSEIN AGHA and ROBERT MALLEY
Op-Ed Contributors, NYT
June 3, 2008

IN the last few weeks, three long-frozen conflicts in the Middle East have displayed early signs of thawing. Israel and Hamas may be inching toward a cease-fire that would end attacks by both sides and, perhaps, loosen the siege imposed on the impoverished Gaza Strip. The factions in Lebanon, after a long period of institutional paralysis and a near civil war, have reached a tentative political agreement. And eight years after their last negotiations, Israel and Syria have announced the resumption of indirect peace talks.

That so many parties are moving at the same time in so many arenas is noteworthy enough. That they are doing so without — and, in some cases, despite — the United States is more remarkable still.

The Gaza deal is being brokered by Egypt. Qatar mediated the Lebanese accord. Turkey is shepherding the Israeli-Syrian contacts. All three countries are close allies of the United States. Under normal circumstances, they would be loath to act on vital regional matters without America’s consent.

Yet in these cases they seem to have ignored Washington’s preferences. The negotiations either involved parties with whom the United States refuses to talk, initiated a process the United States opposes or produced an outcome harmful to its preferred local allies.

The region is in a mess, and Washington’s allies know it. They privately blame the United States and have given up waiting for the Bush administration to offer them a way out.

By acting as they did, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey gave the true measure of America’s dwindling credibility and leverage after American debacles in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. They are willing to take matters into their own hands and overlook American ambivalence about their doing so.

Intent on isolating its foes, the United States has instead ended up marginalizing itself. In one case after another, the Bush administration has wagered on the losing party or on a lost cause.

Israel wants to deal with Hamas because it — not America’s Palestinian partners — possesses what Israel most wants: the ability to end the violence and to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Israel has come around to dealing with Syria because Damascus — not America’s so-called moderate Arab allies — holds the crucial cards: Syria has a clear strategy of alliance with Iran; it supports the more powerful forces on the ground in Lebanon; and it provides refuge to opposition and Islamist forces in Palestine.

Likewise, America’s Lebanese friends had to give in to Hezbollah’s demands once it became clear that the support of the United States could not undo their country’s balance of power. Meanwhile, the process President Bush seems to care about most — that elusive Israeli-Palestinian track — is also the least likely to go anywhere.

The United States has cut itself off from the region on the dubious assumption that it can somehow maximize pressure on its foes by withholding contact, choosing to flaunt its might in the most primitive and costly of ways. It has pushed its local allies toward civil wars — arming Fatah against Hamas; financing some Lebanese forces against Hezbollah — they could not and did not win. And it has failed to understand that its partners could achieve more in alliance than in conflict with their opposition.

How much more powerful would Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and leader of Fatah, have been if, at the head of a national unity coalition, he could deliver a truce and Corporal Shalit to Israel while simultaneously broadening the support he needs to sell a peace agreement? How much stronger would Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon and his colleagues have been had they agreed two years ago to the very power-sharing accord they were forced to swallow last month?

Many questions surround these three still-incomplete deals. They could collapse or move in unintended directions. They may end up serving a quite different purpose, like constraining Syria’s, Hezbollah’s or Hamas’s ability to retaliate in the event of an American or Israeli attack against Iran. On all this there is understandable uncertainty.

But for now at least, there’s no great mystery about where the United States stands. At a critical time in a critical region, it is quite simply missing in action.

Hussein Agha is the author, with Ahmed S. Khalidi, of “A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine.” Robert Malley, the director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group, was a special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001, and recently an Obama foreign policy advisor.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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June 3rd, 2008, 4:59 pm

 

18. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Ehsani,
Well, if Syria is not committed to uphold international law, then stop using international law in any argument. It is just a farce.

My view is quite simple. If Syria thinks it is in her interest to develop a nuclear bomb, then it should try to do so. If Israel thinks it is in her interest to stop the Syrians it should do so also. No?

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:02 pm

 

19. tajm said:

Bashar feared another civil war in Lebanon

By Abdul Hamid Ahmad, Editor in Chief
Published: June 02, 2008, 23:32

Abu Dhabi: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad said he was “personally afraid” that the recent Lebanese crisis would lead to another civil war and stressed that Damascus is keen to support the Doha agreement, which ended the crisis.

The Doha agreement, he said, would stand only if Lebanese rivals exerted real efforts to maintain reconciliation.

“The latest crisis in Lebanon caused us great concern. I was personally afraid of the prospect of a new civil war, since what happens in Lebanon affects us in Syria and adds a new burden [on Syria],” Bashar told a group of senior Emirati journalists in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

A new civil war in Lebanon would have been much worse of a disaster than the previous one, which ended with Syrian and Saudi efforts in 1990.

The Syrian leader was speaking on the second day of his current visit to the UAE, part of a regional tour aimed at enhancing inter-Arab ties.

The tour, he added, is also meant “to give a strong support” to the Doha agreement between the Lebanese rivals, in his capacity as current chairman of the Arab Summit.

Worrying issues

The tour’s agenda includes other issues, such as the situation in Iraq and Palestine, which Bashar described as “worrying.”

“It is crucial to have a national unity government in Lebanon in line with the Doha Agreement after the President [Michel Sulaiman] was elected,” he said, adding that Syria does not mind having normal relations with Lebanon, including the opening a Syrian embassy in Beirut.

He pointed out that “Syria first suggested this in 2005″ during the meetings of the Syrian-Lebanese joint committees.

“It is not true that this is the demand of Syria’s opponents in Lebanon, but opening an embassy needs good relations between the two countries, and we were forced to put off this step as relations with Lebanon deteriorated in the past few years,” he said.

Syria did not also oppose the demarcation of the borders with Lebanon, he said. “The only obstacle is the [occupied Lebanese territory of] Sheba’a Farms.”

“Syria said three years ago it was ready to demarcate the borders and some committees have already started working on it.”

PM welcome in Syria

Bashar welcomed a visit by the Lebanese Prime Minister to Syria, whether it was Prime Minister Fouad Siniora or any other premier, “provided he is heading a national unity government.”

As for other anti-Syria politicians, the Syrian President said the door is open for everyone within the framework of mutual respect. “We have no problem with anyone who offended us if they back off,” he said, referring to Walid Junblatt, head of the Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party.

The Syrian leader pointed out at the current tensions between his country and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and said the dispute was “only a matter of different points of view,” which should not derail joint Arab action.

“We have a difference in views with Qatar, for example, but that did not stop us from working together to resolve the Lebanese issue, and if Egypt or Saudi Arabia believe they have problems with Syria, they should tell us where the problem is,” he said.

He said his current tour will not include Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but as chairman of the Arab Summit, he would visit Arab countries at “the right time and within the framework of joint Arab action.”

His current tour also aims to brief Arab leaders on the ongoing peace talks between Syria and Israel, held in Turkey, he said.

Seeks good ties with US

“We have explained our vision for peace and are still waiting for the Israeli response. However, our earlier experience in negotiations with Israel was not encouraging, and what Syria is doing now is making sure that Israel is ready for peace,” Bashar said. “There are no direct talks at this stage. We believe indirect negotiations are sufficient at this stage as we are still negotiating to find a common ground. [But] we are willing to move to direct negotiations once this is reached,” he said.

He said Syria will not offer concessions over the 1967 territories. He said Damascus was negotiating on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, which calls for full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war in return for full normalisation of relations. The Arab initiative is based on the Madrid conference’s land for peace principles, he said.

With regards to the US role, the Syrian President said the US is an important country because of its international power and its strong relations with Israel. But Washington has no role in the current talks, he stressed.

“Eventually, the negotiations will be carried out under US, international and Arab umbrellas, but the US has no part in the ongoing negotiations at this time,” he said.

He added that Syria wants to have good relations with the US, especially concerning regional issues such as Iraq and Palestine, but the current US administration “has problems not only with Syria, but with its friends as well, which is why nothing much is expected from this administration.”

As for ties with France, he said they were negatively affected by the situation in Lebanon and Paris’ “inability to understand” the Syrian position. “When Paris finally understood this position, relations with France started returning to their normal track.”

On the other hand, Syria’s ties with Iran play an important role in bridging the gap between Tehran and Arab states.

“Iran is a regional neighbour, and if we disagree with it, we should start a dialogue. What Syria is doing is helping this dialogue,” he said, stressing that relations with Iran will not be at the expense of Arabs.

He ruled out any US strike against Iran, adding: “We are working to avoid this, since the consequences of such strike will affect not just Syria but the whole region, especially Iran’s neighbours.”

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:12 pm

 

20. Seeking the Truth said:

AnotherIsraeliGuy,

If Syria had not signed the NPT, it would have been subjected to enormous pressure to do so; unlike Israel, which is home free for keeping the nukes under wraps.

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:18 pm

 

21. EHSANI2 said:

I think that Syria should not have signed knowing full well that its next door neighbor sits on a stockpile and yet it refuses to sign.

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:27 pm

 

22. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Seeking,
So, sometimes Israel is able to manouevre better than Syria in the international arena. When Syria gets away with things, everybody here is quick to praise Asad, when Israel is able to do so, everyone cries hypocrisy. That is a sign of sore losers.

When Syria arms Hizballah without getting caught, that is a great achievemnet even if it is against international law. When Israel takes care of its interests, we hear cries of hypocrisy. Give me a break. Nobody is fooled by these antics. You want international law to be respected? Start by respecting it yourself.

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:37 pm

 

23. Naji said:

Syria signed the NPT because it found it in its interest to do so. Syria continues to comply with the NPT, because, unlike Israel, it is a lawful country that has always abided by international law and treaties. Also, it is in Syria’s interest to continue to always comply with international law and treaties, because such laws and treaties support Syria’s just territorial and moral claims…!

Put another way, the trend of civilizational progress and international law happen to be on Syria’s side. Thus, we fully subscribe…!

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:40 pm

 

24. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Naji,
Syria is an outlaw country that supports terrorism and flaunts international law. That is what both Americans and Europeans say.

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:45 pm

 

25. jbello said:

I think Freedman’s reflection that he can’t understand Hizbollah’s restraint as anything but weakness tells you something about the prevailing mindset in the West. Everything is like a football game. They are always playing on a 2 dimensional board and can’t grasp strategies that encompass more dimensions.
Some attribute this kind of thinking to their opinion of the native population in the Middle East (or anywhere else there is a ‘native’ population), but this type of thinking is so pervasive that you have to assume it is a product of the limitations of their own mindset.

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:49 pm

 

26. Seeking the Truth said:

AIG,

Aren’t you using the two wrongs make a right argument?

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June 3rd, 2008, 5:56 pm

 

27. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Seeking,
Please explain why? All I am arguing is that when Syria, a country that flaunts international law, uses arguments based on international law, it is a farce. I am not justifying anything Israel does based on this.

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June 3rd, 2008, 6:00 pm

 

28. Naji said:

AIG
Read the papers…! Today’s papers…! What you claim is what passed for “truth” several years ago… when the neo-con wierdos briefly held sway…!! Times have changed and it might be appropriate for you at this point to “wake up and smell the coffee”…!!

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June 3rd, 2008, 6:01 pm

 

29. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Naji,
Syria cannot buy an airplane nor a truck (among other things) from America, Canada or any EU country. Your economy is losing ground to the rest of the world and you cannot create enough jobs for the huge number of unskilled workers that come into the workforce each year. Your education system is almost worthless and there is still about 20% illiteracy in Syria. Who exactly has to wake up and smell the coffee?

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June 3rd, 2008, 6:12 pm

 

30. Qifa Nabki said:

Naji

Waynak habibi? Long time no see. ;-)

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June 3rd, 2008, 6:39 pm

 

31. Observer said:

Delusions:

Bricmont has argued many times that, the greatest event in the last century was and is the emancipation of millions of people around the world from the yoke of colonialism and now from neo colonialism.

Historians in the Western tradition have always had a centrist if not to say ego centric perspective on things: examples include the history of Japan which starts with Commodor Perry and nothing before that. The hisotrical earthquake of the twentieth century is not WWI or WWII but the liberation of millions of people from the colonial rule. The expansion of Europe since the 16th century with the advent of accelerated technological advance coupled with organization of superior military forces has come to an end and is seeing its final demise in Baghada, Fallujah, Rafah, and also in Beirut.

The list of all the articles so far being presented here goes along the same venue:

Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Lebanon, Palestine, and one can also add Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan did not turn out to be another victorious stroll down the Champs Elysees. The roll back has started and there seems to be no way to stop any time soon. In the equation of terror vz terror, the one that does not count his casualties and prefers death of a martyr for the sake of the nation over life in the jet age will always win at the end.

Africa is going through the same process but the loss of control of the Europeans/Americans over their destiny in ABSOLUTE terms is gone for good for the Europeans and the Americans are still delusional about the extent of their power.

This is where the obsession with the NPT and nuclear proliferation is coming to a head: the only weapon left that truly can restore that absolute control is the use not simply the possession of the nuclear weapon. The leadership of neocons in the US and their “humanitarian” interventionsits of the left in Europe are itching to use the weapon and demonstrate once again the power of the “White man and his burden” and to continue ” La mission civilizatrice”. This is the mother of all Delusions that comes just close to the idea that the ME can remain in the same division that it was left in after the vivisection of the Ottoman empire, that the area will be stabilized for the sake of the “only democracy” of the chosen ones, and that the flow of cheap oil in exchange for trinkets ( Jaguar aircraft included ) will remain the order of the day.

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June 3rd, 2008, 6:48 pm

 

32. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

“In the equation of terror vz terror, the one that does not count his casualties and prefers death of a martyr for the sake of the nation over life in the jet age will always win at the end.”

This sounds kind of pompous and crazy coming from a person living in the US. On second thought, it is just amusing. Given that most “martyrs” killed fellow Arabs or countrymen or civillians you really must smoke something milder.

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June 3rd, 2008, 6:58 pm

 

33. Seeking the Truth said:

AIG,

You want international law to be respected? Start by respecting it yourself.

Isn’t this the two wrongs make a right argument? One has got to find a way out of the vicious circle of accusation and counteraccusation (you do this first, no you do it first), for a better future.

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June 3rd, 2008, 7:05 pm

 

34. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Seeking,
I am not justifying what Israel is doing. I am not making any value judgement on Israel’s actions because of Syrian actions. All I am saying is that if you want to convince me that international law should be a basis for any discussion, start respecting it yourself. Otherwise, it is a ploy and a farce.

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June 3rd, 2008, 7:26 pm

 

35. Alex said:

Seeking,

Were you taking part in a “ploy and a farce”??!!

Stop it.

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June 3rd, 2008, 7:52 pm

 

36. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Alex,
Syria completely ignores many aspects of international law, yet it wants to base talks on international law. Do you not see the problem there? Why should Syria be taken seriously if that is its position? It does not justify Israel ignoring international law, but it makes the Syrian position very suspect, in other words, a ploy and a farce.

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June 3rd, 2008, 8:02 pm

 

37. Alex said:

AIG,

Politicians, everywhere, always engage in ploys. That will not stop. And every country, at some point and because of some challenge or opportunity, might challenge some law to some degree.

The difference is in the consistency, and the degree to which these challenges go … and in the degree to which one can be certain that country X or country Y are indeed not respecting some international law, or not respecting some binding UN resolutions

For example, laws calling for withdrawal of troop:

Compare 1559 to 497

In UNSC resolution 497 (binding, and passed by the United States):

1. Decides that the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect;

2. Demands that Israel, the occupying Power, should rescind forthwith its decision;

So, we have full certainty that Israel is in clear violation of this resolution.

Then in 1559:

1. Calls upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon;

2. Calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias;

Syria promptly withdrew. You have to give them high marks there… Syria was not even mentioned by name in that resolution. But Syria did not try to engage in “ploys” there.

However, those who passed the resolution (Chiraque and Bush) wanted to use it differently … They wanted Syria to take its time before withdrawing, but to be forced to disarm Hizbollah before being forced to withdraw.

So .. while Syria did the right thing fast, it did take part of “a ploy” in a way … a ploy to counter the ploy of Chiraque and Bush. And some friends of Israel in Washington tried for a couple of years to say that Syria is in violation of 1559 because Syria did not disarm Hizbollah before withdrawing)

But that OPINION (which has some merits if you are a friend of Israel) does not compare to Israel’s FACTUAL, extensive and consistent list of failures to comply with UNSC resolutions (all binding, all passed without US, British, or French veto).

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June 3rd, 2008, 8:17 pm

 

38. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Alex,
You are ignoring the elephant in the room which is the basis for all international law: The Declaration of Human Rights. Syria is so far from complying with that relative to most countries in the world, that one does not know even where to start.

And of course, Syria is in violation of 1559 and 1701 because it is arming Hizballah. And soon it will be found to be in violation of the NPT.

Once Syria gets to choose which parts of international law it complies with and which it doesn’t, then any talks based on international law are a ploy and a farce by Syria.

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June 3rd, 2008, 8:31 pm

 

39. Qifa Nabki said:

AIG

Are you opposed to peace talks with Syria under all conditions, besides the condition of Syria becoming a democracy?

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June 3rd, 2008, 8:31 pm

 

40. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

QN,
No, I would agree to peace talks if as part of the peace deal Syria committs to democratic reforms and also if the peace treaty is approved by the Syrian people by a referundum (a real one). But I mights as well wish pigs could fly.

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June 3rd, 2008, 8:44 pm

 

41. Qifa Nabki said:

AIG

I think that the referendum would not be an issue. Bashar is already very popular, and a deal on the Golan will make him more so. Syrians will support it.

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June 3rd, 2008, 8:53 pm

 

42. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

QN,
And what would happen to the “beating heart of the resistance”?
I actually think that in a really free referundum he may lose just out of spite. You are falling into the trap of figuring out how popular Bashar is based on the 1 million richest Syrians. What about the other 18 million? Let’s wait and see.

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June 3rd, 2008, 9:01 pm

 

43. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

QN,
How do you think by the way Ausamaa and Nour will vote?

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June 3rd, 2008, 9:04 pm

 

44. Seeking the Truth said:

Alex,

No, I’m serious in my comments, and I mean what I say.
On another point, your comment http://joshualandis.com/blog/?p=728#comment-156491 seems to endorce Qifa Nabki’s opinion of why an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty is not feasible, which puts the onus on Syria due to its attitude about the resistance. Is this really what you think?
And one more thing. You have not replied to my question to substantiate your claim that Damascus is the 2nd. favorite place worldwide for the royals to visit.

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June 3rd, 2008, 9:12 pm

 

45. Alex said:

AIG,

You are the best… You want the whole world to agree that the elephant in the room is always what Israel can not be accused of (in your opinion) !

QN,

I actually support AIG for once … If I were an Israeli citizen, I would like to know if the Syrian people agree to the agreement that Bashar agrees to (one day).

Real peace is made between people … I am all for referendums on both side. f either side reject an agreement, then too bad.

Seeking,

I’m sorry if I missed your question, please forgive me.

Did you ask me for a link??

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24410251/

If you asked me to prove it … I have no idea how accurate is this classification. Forbes picked that list, I did not.

And … I think a majority of Syrians will indeed approve that treaty IF it also goes further than Camp David along the Palestinian track. Syrians want a fair and jsut solution between Syria and Israel, and they want to do their part in helping the Palestinians … not to abandon them completely, and not to be a hostage to the difficulties of reaching an absolutely final settlement on ALL the remaining disagreements (Jerusalem, right of return …etc) …

But I agree with QN that it will take some time (a year?) for Syrians to get used to less resistance and more solutions.

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June 3rd, 2008, 9:32 pm

 

46. Seeking the Truth said:

Thanks Alex.
But I simply can not find in the linked web page anything about Damascus being in the 2nd place, unless perhaps if you’re refering to SAUDI royals only, whereas the article is talking about all world royals in general.

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June 3rd, 2008, 9:45 pm

 

47. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Alex,
You miss the point. I am not a fan of international law. You are. Yet, you ignore those parts of it you don’t like like the Declaration of Human Rights just because clearly syria is far behind most ocuntries in implementing it. When Syria takes international law seriously, only then can it reasonably demand that the basis for any agreement be international law.

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June 4th, 2008, 3:46 am

 

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