News Round Up (3 March 2007)

Correction: In my article Will Saudi Arabia Solve America’s Problems? I incorrectly wrote that Mohammed Ben Jelloun "was writing at a Hizbullah backed think tank." This is wrong. Ben Jelloun is a sociologist and political scientist unaffiliated with any party. I should have written that "Ali Fayyad is a "director of a think tank closely affiliated with Hezbollah." Ben Jelloun was quoting from an article by Mr. Fayyad, who is affiliated with Hizbullah. I apologize for any insult to Mohammed Ben Jelloun or to those associated with the website "Swans Commentary" that published his excellent article, all of whom are unaffilliated with Hizbullah. I recommend everyone to read Mohammed Ben Jelloun's fine article, "Hizbullah's Democratic Demands." Best, Joshua Landis 

Will Saudi Arabia Solve America’s Problems? I incorrectly wrote that Mohammed Ben Jelloun "was writing at a Hizbullah backed think tank." This is wrong. Ben Jelloun is a sociologist and political scientist unaffiliated with any party. I should have written that "Ali Fayyad is a "director of a think tank closely affiliated with Hezbollah." Ben Jelloun was quoting from an article by Mr. Fayyad, who is affiliated with Hizbullah. I apologize for any insult to Mohammed Ben Jelloun or to those associated with the website "Swans Commentary" that published his excellent article, all of whom are unaffilliated with Hizbullah. I recommend everyone to read Mohammed Ben Jelloun's fine article, "Hizbullah's Democratic Demands." Best, Joshua Landis 

Helena Cobban Interviewed Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem on Feb 28th when she was visiting Damascus. Cobban has serialized them here: one (on Iraq), two (Peace with Israel), three Israel again. Here is a bit from part one. Mouallem explains Syria's view of the upcoming Baghdad conference:

The idea of the meeting is to rally the goodwill of the neighboring countries and to express support for Iraq's security and stability.  For Syria, it's our vital interest to achieve security and stability in Iraq.  In Syria, we have more than a million displaced Iraqis.  They are a real burden on our economy, and on our education and healthcare systems.  We're not getting any support from anyone for this– including the Iraqi government.

This is a humanitarian issue, and it's increasing in gravity on a daily basis, because of the terrible security situation in Iraq.

He explained that because Syria hopes that these displaced persons can speedily return to their homes in Iraq, his government is reluctant to refer to them as refugees, calling them instead "displaced perople."

Mouallem described the Bush administration's decision to attecnd the Baghdad conference as,

a partial step in the correct direction.  But it's not the full step we are expecting Washington to reach to.  The full step will be when the Americans decide to have a comprehensive dialogue on regional issues, starting with the Arab-Israeli issue, which is the core issue in the region. 


V.P. Sharaa had this to say about the March 10 talks in Baghdad. Quoted from the Daily Star:

"I am optimistic, but in a measured fashion," Sharaa told Le Monde newspaper.

"The Baghdad meeting is a good thing, even if it is coming a bit late. It should have been held two years ago," he said. "Much depends on what the American administration has in its head."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has invited neighboring countries, including Syria and Iran; the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, Russia, Britain, France and China; and representatives of the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference to the March 10 meeting in Baghdad.

Washington has said that agreeing to attend the conference does not amount to a change in policy toward Iran and Syria, which it accuses of fuelling violence in Iraq.

But Sharaa indicated that he thought the US presence might signify a shift of stance.

"I have to say that I have already noted positive elements," he said.

SANA adds this:

Al-Sharaa called for caution because the situation in Iraq is slipping toward chaos, and there are important proposed issues such as national reconciliation, and agreement on a timetable for withdrawal of the foreign troops, indicating that Syria stands in at the same distance from all the Iraqi parties whether in the government or in the opposition, because the role of a mediator can not be played if we take sides with any party.

On the Syrian-French relations, the vice president expressed hope that the crisis between the two countries will end by the French presidential elections whoever would the president-elect be, because there is no reason for the continuation of boycott between the two countries, and healthy normal relations should be restored in the best interest of the two countries.

On Ahmedinehad's visit to Saudi Arabia, Parisa Hafezi of Reuters (1 March 2007) explains that the Middle Eastern powers are trying to reduce friction and to bring Syria out of the cold:

A Lebanese political source in Beirut said Iran wanted to break the ice between Saudis and Syrians — a key element in defusing Lebanon's crisis — before an Arab League summit set for Saudi Arabia at the end of March.

Saudi commentators, noting Syrian officials have not visited Saudi Arabia in months, say Riyadh might want a thaw in its relations with Damascus to pry Syria away from Iran.

The crisis in Lebanon and Sunni-Shi'ite fighting in Iraq has led to fears of growing sectarian divides across the region.

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have all accepted Baghdad's invitation to attend a regional conference in March on ways of easing tensions in Iraq.

Iraqi analyst Mustafa Alani, who recently visited Riyadh and met Saudi officials, said "The Iranian leadership think they are going to face a major crisis sooner or later with the nuclear programme and the United States trying to push them out of Iraq, so basically they want to neutralise Gulf opposition at the least," Alani said.

"The visit is an Iranian initiative. It wasn't an invitation. The problem is Ahmadinejad himself. He is not trusted by the Saudi leadership," he said.

"The Iranians tried to show the Saudis goodwill in Lebanon and that they are open to diplomatic bargaining. They reduced the tension markedly in Lebanon." (Additional reporting by Beirut bureau)

The first day of the meeting produced little agreement on Lebanon but "The two parties have agreed to stop any attempt aimed at spreading sectarian strife in the region," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters without elaborating.

The State Department is sending a special envoy to Syria to discuss Iraqi refugees. This is the first official high level US visit to Syria since Washington withdrew its ambassador two years ago; it is an additional indication that Syria's isolation is ending. John Donnelly of the Boston Globe writes (1 March 2007)

A senior State Department official has applied for a visa to travel to Syria to address the problems of Iraqi refugees, further eroding the Bush administration's previous position of not engaging in direct talks with Damascus.

Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration, applied for the visa earlier this week, according to a State Department official, who asked to speak anonymously because he was not authorized to talk publicly on the issue.

The decision for the administration to ask Syria for permission for Sauerbrey's travel comes as US officials have also agreed to hold high-level talks with Iranian and Syrian officials during an upcoming international meeting on Iraq's future. President Bush had previously disallowed any direct talks with officials from the two nations, especially Iran. The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria, including a charge d'affaires at the embassy in Damascus; it has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamist revolution.

The US official said Sauerbrey was given instructions to talk only about Iraqi refugees, but that still represented a significant turnaround within the senior levels of administration, particularly the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been opposing any outreach to Syria. Cheney and others have argued that senior administration officials should shun Syria because of its long period of hegemony over Lebanon and allowing weapons to flow from Iran into Lebanon to support Hezbollah fighters.

"We think that this is very important and commendable," said Dawn Calabia, a senior adviser at Refugees International, a Washington- based advocacy group, about Sauerbrey's planned trip. "Her visit is a way of saying we appreciate that Syria is permitting so many Iraqis to stay there and give them at least a safe place to be. That's an important gesture."

The conservative Heritage Foundation is dismayed that the US will talk to Syria. They oppose talks because they believe Syrian and Iranian diplomats are smarter than Americans and will "sucker" them into giving away the store. "Bush Administration has reinforced the perception that it is going soft on America's enemies," writes James Philips. "The Bush Administration must not be suckered into trading concessions on Iran's nuclear program for a cosmetic deal on Iraq that involves Iranian and Syrian promises that will never be fulfilled."

Steven Cook of the CFR says "The Decision to Meet With Syria & Iran is ‘Positive'. On Syria, He answers Gwertzman's question:

What about Syria? Can they do anything to help out Iraq?

The Syrians can do a better job on policing their border. But what’s uppermost in the minds of the Syrian leadership is relieving the pressure on the investigation and international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That is essentially the price the United States is going to have to pay. That’s what the Syrians are looking for in terms of gaining its cooperation. Talks with the Iranians are much more important than the talks with the Syrians, to be honest with you. But there is a Syrian-Israeli angle here. The Israelis have demonstrated an interest in dealing with the Syrians as a result of the war in Lebanon over the summer. There may be something that can be done as a result of these talks to jump-start a Syrian-Israeli negotiation. But the Syrians have a history of playing both ends of the fence, being constructive in one area and being the furthest from constructive in another area.

Farid Ghadry, leader of the Syrian Reform Party, has blasted Walid Junblat, the anti-Syrian Lebanese leader of the Druze, for arguing at the American Enterprise Institute that the US should support Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood against Bashar al-Asad. He writes on his blog:

The event of AEI provided a hint of what is illogical in the approach of the Lebanese politicians and why it has been difficult for the international community to lock-step with their wishes. Jumblatt, in his last three visits, has called for the US to support the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Abdul Halim Khaddam, an ex-vice president of Syria and an adamant supporter of Ba’athism,….

I, personally, have a problem with someone supporting the Syrian opposition in general vs. supporting a portion of the Syrian opposition that is not representative of the people of Syria anymore than a past corrupt official and a group with a history of violence do. Lebanon’s security can not be the price for Syria’s insecurity. Yesterday’s headline in a Muslim Brotherhood Arabic web site read: “Jumblatt supports the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to Assad’. Since when the alternative is a group and not a democracy, I ask !!!

French President Jacques Chirac told Lebanese parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri Friday that the "constructive" outcome of the Paris III donor conference should not be squandered by political infighting. In a meeting at Elysee Palace in Paris, the leaders also discussed plans for an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Chirac told Hariri the "constructive outcome of the Paris III donor summit should not be jeopardized by the political skirmishes prevailing on the Lebanese scene," the station said.

The French president said that the international court could be formed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, but he told Hariri that the establishment of the court "is better implemented within Lebanese constitutional institutions," adding that  if such an approach failed "other means of having the court formed will be discussed."

Hariri said after the meeting that the establishment of the international tribunal was the only way to protect Lebanon from "evil forces that roam around it."

Asked whether the court will be established under Chapter 7 if various Lebanese groups fail to agree on its formation, Hariri said that "everything will be discussed in time."

A Chapter 7 designation would allow for the implementation of the court by international parties without the approval of Lebanon's Parliament.

Speaker Nabih Berri, a member of the opposition, has so far refused to convene a parliamentary session to endorse a draft proposal for the tribunal. In an interview Thursday on CNN, Hariri said Berri was "not allowed" to suspend parliamentary sessions "because Lebanon is a democratic country." "We will denounce anyone who contributes to hindering the formation of the court," he said.

Western intelligence sources worried by jihadist upsurge in Lebanon (From
By Amos Harel, Haaretz, March 2, 2007

Western intelligence agencies are worried by a growing concentration of terror operatives associated with the global jihad movement in Lebanon.

Recent intelligence indicates that hundreds of Sunni Muslim terrorists from various Arab countries are currently residing around Tyre, mainly in a Palestinian refugee camp near the city. Some of the terrorists are apparently from Sudan and Yemen.

Both Western and Israeli intelligence agencies fear that the jihadists' growing presence in southern Lebanon will lead to more attacks against Israel and a renewed escalation along the northern border. The United Nations forces deployed along the border following last summer's war with Hezbollah are also considered potential targets. [complete article]

New polling research finds opposition to war highest among Jews
By Nathan Guttman, The Forward, March 2, 2007

Even as a new study found that American Jews are significantly more opposed to the Iraq War than are Christians, Jewish organizations decided not to take up the issue at their annual policy conference.

Drawing from the results of 13 polls conducted since 2005, the Gallup Organization found that 77% of American Jews think the Iraq War was a mistake, compared with 52% of the general American public. The poll found that Jewish opposition to the war in Iraq transcends political boundaries, with Jewish Democrats and Jewish Republicans being more likely than their respective non-Jewish counterparts to oppose the war.

"These data show that the average American Jew — even those who are Republicans and may support the Bush administration on other matters — opposes the war," Gallup concluded in the report, released last week.

Comments (69)

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51. Gibran said:

Thanks for the suggestion. Do you have any other suggestions?

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March 5th, 2007, 1:43 am


52. EHSANI2 said:

Is this a hint that you will consider it?

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March 5th, 2007, 1:45 am


53. Alex said:


I said I am joking.

Believe me, I have Lebanese relatives and I would not call them donkeys.

Take it easy … weekend not over yet.

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March 5th, 2007, 1:53 am


54. Gibran said:

Well ALEX, You know very well some jokes should not be made and then called jokes after the fact. Yet I’m not angry with you.

I thanked you already for the suggestion. What else do you want?

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March 5th, 2007, 2:00 am


55. norman said:

Alex , Gibran is upset for calling a Democrat in the American politecal System .Democrat are Donkeies and Republicans are Elefants.

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March 5th, 2007, 2:25 am


56. Gibran said:

Israel may have begun to see the positive merits of the Saudi drive to resolve the Arab/Israeli problem once and for all:

A new chance for peace

By Haaretz Editorial

The decision of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to hold the Arab League summit in Riyadh later this month to discuss proposing the 2002 Arab peace initiative anew, offers a fresh opportunity to revive the peace process between Israel and its neighbors, and to bolster the moderate axis in the Middle East against the emerging Iranian nuclear threat.

Abdullah’s original initiative proposed a simple formula: A complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories, including Jerusalem, in return for normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world. At the Beirut summit, which approved the plan as “the Arab peace initiative,” significant changes were made. It was established that the Israeli pullout should be to the lines of June 4 , 1967, and a “refugees article” was added, calling for “a just and agreed-upon solution” to the problem according to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which the Palestinians interpret as recognition of the right of return. Israel, under Ariel Sharon, had its reservations about the Saudi initiative, but in recent months Prime Minister Ehud Olmert altered his approach and began referring to “positive elements” in the initiative. This was his way of signaling that there is something to talk about.

The 2002 initiative was launched at the worst possible moment: Hundreds of Israelis were murdered in suicide bombings and the attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya resulted in Israel’s operation “Defensive Shield” in the West Bank. The circumstances today are absolutely different. Saudi Arabia is once again talking about a peace initiative, following the second Lebanon war and the pledge of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map. The Saudi message is that Israel will be a welcome partner in the region – if it pulls out of the territories. As such, Abdullah took a stance opposing Ahmadinejad and called on him not to intervene in the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Saudi Arabia holds a unique status because of the king’s role as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites and also because of the country’s oil wealth. It is therefore in a position, more than any other state, to offer religious and economic backing to peace settlements between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia and Israel also share concerns about the growing strength of Iran and both wish to prevent another war in the region. They have a shared interest in the renewal of the peace process. Taking advantage of this opportunity requires both sides to show flexibility and openness. The Saudis need to understand, as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said, that Israel has red lines on the issue of refugees, and it will not be able to accept the right of return as the basis for dialogue. It is therefore important that the Riyadh summit conclude with a more pragmatic formulation of the initiative.

It is the duty of the government of Israel not to reject the hand that is being offered by Saudi Arabia. Olmert must consider the Arab peace initiative to be an appropriate basis for dialogue, one that will lead to a permanent settlement and a settling of the status of Israel in the region, and which will serve as a definitive response to Ahmadinejad and his partners in the extremist camp. A renewed peace process will save Olmert’s government from the impasse in which it is stuck. It is important that the four weeks left before the summit in Riyadh involve intensive diplomatic efforts to formulate an agreed-upon framework for the regional peace initiative.

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March 5th, 2007, 2:28 am


57. Alex said:

Gibran, AP, Ehsani, IC, FP, Norman, Syrian, Young Syria:

Can I suggest that we all agree to limit our jokes to the weekend only?

Although we are all having fun, it seems we are also turning Syria Comment into an almost useless forum.

I am impressed that AP rarely uses the T-word and that Gibran does not copy Ass-Syassa articles anymore. We all have to reciprocate.

I will try to act more like MSK from now on.


Gibran can you agree to at least not remind us of your mostly negative rating of the intelligence or integrity of each one of us Syrians here? We will do the same.

And on the weekend we can still discuss Tarek Mitri’s trips to Cairo.

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March 5th, 2007, 2:39 am


58. norman said:

Alex, About Lebanon joining Syria in greater Syria , I do not think i want that ,I would rather have a fence around Lebanon so their way of treating each other does not spread to Syria .

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March 5th, 2007, 2:43 am


59. Gibran said:

OK Alex you still haven’t noticed that my mostly negative ratings of your fellow Syrians takes place ONLY in response to a similar remark by someone. Go back and check if you want. Now about your other suggestions, I have no problem, provided no one will interpret attacks on governments as personal attacks or attacks on the people in general. If you haven’t noticed already, I don’t take attacks on the Lebanese government as personal or an attack on Lebanon.
Norman, for some reason I feel I have to thank you from the deepest depth of my heart for your last suggestion. Where have you been hiding all this time, Norman? How about we raise your suggestion to the UN and ask them to implement a resolution that may deploy some 20000 to 30000 UN troops along the Lebanese/Syrian borders?

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March 5th, 2007, 3:12 am


60. norman said:

Gibran, I think one like you will be enough.

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March 5th, 2007, 3:16 am


61. majedkhaldoun said:

برامرتس إلى السعودية

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March 5th, 2007, 3:25 am


62. Gibran said:

Well Majed, you should put the full story, and include the source which is the Arabic edition of AnNahar:

برامرتس إلى السعودية

في تطور يُرجح أن يكون مرتبطاً بنتائج القمة السعودية – الايرانية، علم ليل أمس أن رئيس لجنة التحقيق الدولية في جريمة اغتيال الرئيس رفيق الحريري القاضي البلجيكي سيرج برامرتس غادر بيروت الى المملكة العربية السعودية. وهي المرة الأولى يزور برامرتس السعودية في اطار مهمته.

Norman, I still think some 30000 UN troops would be a good idea and will make your proposed fence a very effective one.

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March 5th, 2007, 3:41 am


63. Gibran said:

And in the same edition, AnNahar wrote as main article:

المحكمة الدولية في “غرفة العناية” بعد لقاء عبدالله ونجاد
بيروت تنتظر اليوم نتائج القمة
بري على تفاؤله والسنيورة يتريّث

ساد الغموض والحذر امس الاجواء السياسية في لبنان مع ترقب النتائج التفصيلية للقمة السعودية – الإيرانية المتصلة بالأزمة اللبنانية والتي يبدو ان القوى السياسية لم تطلع عليها بعد ولا تزال تنتظر تبلغها قبل اتخاذ اي مواقف منها.
وقال مصدر مطلع لـ”النهار” ان القمة ونتائجها المعلنة عززت مناخ الايجابيات الذي بدأ يلفح الوضع اللبناني، لكن ذلك يبقى رهناً بمعرفة طبيعة التفاهم بين الرياض وطهران على سبل معالجة الازمة اللبنانيAة التي يرجح ان تسلك طريقها الى الترجمة بحذر شديد، نظراً الى حساسية العقدة السورية التي يفترض ان يكون الجانبان تطرقا اليها.
واضاف انه من غير المتوقع تبيّن الاطار النهائي للتسوية السياسية في لبنان قبل ان تبلّغ ايران سوريا نتائج لقاء العاهل السعودي الملك عبدالله بن عبد العزيز والرئيس الايراني محمود احمدي نجاد، خصوصاً ان ايران اسوة بدول عربية واسلامية اخرى تضطلع بدور لاعادة العلاقات الطبيعية بين السعودية وسوريا مع اقتراب موعد القمة العربية في الرياض في 28 و29 من الجاري. واشار الى ان موضوع المحكمة الدولية يبدو كأنه ادخل “غرفة العناية الفائقة” على المستويين الاقليمي والعربي بعد القمة وان التسوية اللبنانية باتت تنتظر الموقف السوري النهائي من هذه القضية والذي يفترض ان يتبلور في فترة قريبة.

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March 5th, 2007, 3:46 am


64. DJ said:

Are you in favor of deploying UN troops between Syria and Lebanon?

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March 5th, 2007, 5:17 am


65. Gibran said:

Don’t you see the great benefits?

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March 5th, 2007, 5:41 am


66. DJ said:

On a lighter note Gibran; you may have noticed that Alex (the one you also deem as a ‘regime apologist’ ) is the nicest person to you in here…don’t you now wish that all other commentators were regime apologists/sympathizers ?

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March 5th, 2007, 5:43 am


67. DJ said:

Benefits ? by what scale are you gauging the outcome of such move as benefits?

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March 5th, 2007, 5:53 am


68. Gibran said:

Regardless of nice or otherwise, you cannot tie pure personal attributes to the the quality of being sympathetic to regimes. As a qualifier, I’m not here implying Alex is nice or otherwise.

You have to answer my question first? Don’t you see the benefits? You may choose the scale you wish for the purpose of gauging.

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March 5th, 2007, 6:03 am


69. DJ said:

Well Gibran, sorry I can’t think of any …
The better question is: will there ever be a legitimate Lebanese majority to request such deployment?

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March 5th, 2007, 6:24 am


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