Obama Nominates Ambassador to Syria as Businessmen Rush in

Obama has nominated diplomat Robert S. Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005. There were reports in the last few days that the nomination might not go through, but it has. Laura Rozen belives it was timed in part to add pressure on Iran to fall in line.

Several friends have told me that Syria has been hosting one delegation of American and European businessmen after another as Western banks scramble to get in on the bottom floor of the Syrian economy. The normalization of US – Syrian relations has been in the air for some time and the reform process in Syria is beginning to reach a critical mass. There remains much to be done in the way of reforming the legal infrastructure and, perhaps even more importantly, the judicial system, but capitalists are taking notice and no one wants to be left out while Syrian assets are undervalued.

Human rights issues continue to dog Syria. The president has shown little inclination to loosen security controls as a response to improving relations with the West and growing economic activity.

Obama announces return of ambassador to Syria
Laura Rozen:
February 16, 2010

Ford is a highly regarded diplomat and career Foreign Service officer who currently serves as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Iraq. He previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Algeria, and deputy chief of mission in Bahrain, among many other assignments. An Arabic speaker, Ford is the recipient of a half dozen several State Department awards for honor and outstanding service.

“Ambassador Ford is a highly accomplished diplomat with many years of experience in the Middle East,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement. “His appointment represents President Obama’s commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people. If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern.”

POLITICO previously reported that Ford would be the nominee.

His prospective nomination was conveyed to Damascus last month by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, journalist Hisham Melham reported.

Undersecretary of State Bill Burns is traveling to Syria this week to discuss it further, as well as efforts to ensure that Syria help prevent insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq, especially ahead of Iraq’s elections next month, Syrian-Lebanese relations, and chiefly, Iran.

The timing of the White House announcement of the plan to return an envoy to Damascus also has a great deal to do with Washington’s efforts to signal Iran that its failure to engage will lead to greater international isolation and pressure. Syria is one of Iran’s closest allies, and both nations arm militant groups Hamas and Lebanese-based Hezbollah.

Tensions have been sharply escalating in recent weeks between Israel and Lebanon, with many Lebanese commentators fearing a possible new Israeli attack on their country over recent Hezbollah moves. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah today warned Israel that if it attacked Lebanon’s airport as it did in 2006, Hezbollah would attack Israel’s airport.

Group sees Syria as a stepping stone
February 15 2010, Damascus, Syria

No doubt his superiors at Halcrow, a leading British design and planning consultant, looked at the Arab nation and thought of a maverick state accused of backing Islamist extremists – more international pariah than business destination.

Yet Mr Jazairi, a Syrian based in the UK for 30 years, believed there was potential. He convinced Halcrow that things were slowly changing in Syria as reformers within the government have tentatively pushed to open up the struggling economy and shift it away from a socialist legacy which has seriously stymied growth and development.

In 2006, after two years of market studies and visits by senior management, Halcrow took the plunge, opening an office on the outskirts of Damascus, initially with just a handful of staff. It is a decision which appears to have paid off.

Today, Halcrow is the biggest private consultant operating in Syria and boasts some 250 engineers and administrators in the country. And while Halcrow’s Middle East headquarters in debt-stricken Dubai has been laying off staff, with its personnel dropping from around 335 to 240 in the wake of that emirate’s economic crisis, the Syrian office has continued to grow.

It has hired around 60 people over the past 18 months and expects to continue to expand its Syria operation.

“We saw evidence of changes, of the policies and openness, and we saw a need for our company on the engineering side,” says Mr Jazairi, general manager of the Damascus office. “There is enough work here, probably for 30 years.”

Driving the business is government spending on infrastructure – water, roads, bridges, sewerage treatment plans and water projects – as well as increasing private sector activity. Being relatively isolated from the international economy has also meant that the country has been less affected by the global financial crisis than neighbouring states.

For Halcrow, building up its presence in the domestic market is only a first step, with the company looking to take advantage of operating costs that are about half of those in Gulf states and using its Damascus office as a base to offer design and production services for other markets in the Middle East.

“It’s one of the region’s growth areas and in the future it will not just serve the Syrian market but we will also be able to deliver work back here to the UAE,” says Jim Fyvie, Middle East executive director at Halcrow. Increased interest in Syria’s under-developed market has coincided with a tentative improvement in Damascus’s relations with the west and important regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia.

A British trade official says interest from UK companies has increased by around 70 per cent over the past year, albeit from a tiny base.

“The number of companies visiting the market has gone up markedly – a couple of years ago we would see around two or three new companies. This year we have had over 50, usually as part of [trade] missions,” the British official says.

British exports to Syria rose to £76.7m ($120.4m) between January and July 2009, up from £44.2m over the same period in the previous year.

French companies have also shown renewed interest with Lafarge building a cement plant with capacity of 2.75m tons a year.

However, Syria remains under US sanctions which can cause problems for businesses requiring US parts or software. And while the reform process has had some successes, most noticeably in the financial services sector, experts say far tougher challenges lie ahead.

A three-year drought has highlighted Syria’s dependence on agriculture and its vulnerabilities to nature, while its oil resources, which provide 20 per cent of the government’s revenues and about 40 per cent of its export receipts, have been in decline for some time.

The country is also burdened with a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy. Reformers, meanwhile, face stiff resistance to change from hardliners and vested interests in a country where corruption is rampant and a cabal of powerful businessmen close to the ruling regime hold great sway.

Just how committed the government is to moving ahead with tougher reforms to further open and develop the economy remains to be seen.

“The question we have is: what is the next stage of reform and how do we get to the next stage? From what we hear, there are divisions about how far we should open the economy,” says Bassel Hamwi, general manager of Bank Audi. “I believe that gradual opening is also a high-risk approach. The longer we wait, the more potential burden we are giving ourselves, or the next generation.”

Syria: Population Policy Under Scrutiny

The Syrian authorities have been criticised for lacking an effective birth control strategy, despite warnings from officials and experts of the risks to society and the economy of soaring population growth. The alarm was raised by the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, an official body responsible for setting family and population-related policies, which said the population is expected to increase from around 22 million today to an estimated 30 million in 15 years’ time.

The head of the commission, Dr Ensaf Hamad, called on the government during a January conference to implement policies that directly address population growth issues.

Policies have yet to match the seriousness of the situation, critics say, even if the need to curb population growth has been recognised by the authorities in recent years.

They started distributing the contraceptive pill a decade ago and in 2001, a new law stipulated that women could have maternity leave and financial support only for their first three pregnancies.

Even that is a remarkable change after decades in which the government encouraged large families. Until the late 1980s, families with more than 12 children received medals as a symbol of national appreciation.

The 2009 Arab Human Development Report issued by the United Nations warned that Syria could face a population explosion. With an annual rate of growth reaching 2.5 per cent, the country had one of the fastest growing populations in the Arab region and the world.

Syria: Reforms Continue
16 February 2010, Oxford Business Group

As the Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE) prepares to celebrate its first birthday on March 10, traders and staff alike will be heartened by figures that demonstrate a continued rise in trading volumes on the bourse.

According to local business publication The Syria Report, volumes surged 55.7% in the first week of February to S£157m ($3.5m), a record for the exchange. The DSE had already posted one new high in 2010, when trading volume hit S£130m ($2.9m) in the third week of January. The growth in volumes is impressive, considering that weekly trade figures in December were as low as S£33m ($750,000). The increase seems to suggest that investors are greeting the New Year with renewed enthusiasm for the bourse, following a slow start to trading when the DSE opened in 2009. Trading volumes for the first month of operation were a modest S£13.6m ($300,000), spread over only nine sessions.

With eight companies listed initially, low volumes were to be expected. By October, after moving from two to three sessions a week (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday), and with an additional three companies joining the exchange in the interim, monthly volumes had risen more than twenty-fold to S£284m ($6.2m), or an average of S£23.6m ($500,000) per session. By January, average volume had risen to S£28.4m ($600,000).

If the latest figures are supported (they have not yet been published on the DSE’s website), average volume per session for the first week of February would have hit S£52m, or just over $1m. The average number of trades per session has also jumped from only 16 last April to 107 in January, while volume of shares traded has grown from an average 1660 per session to 22,500 (a small drop from October’s average of 25,400).

Joining the positive trading statistics was news that a DSE-listed company has broken the S£1bn mark in terms of the accumulated value of shares traded. The Syrian International Islamic Bank (SIIB) recently hit S£1001.34m ($21m) in value traded, despite being a latecomer to the DSE, and indeed being registered on the secondary “growth” market (designed for smaller companies).

The growth in market activity suggests that a few of the teething troubles experienced by the market in its opening months are being resolved. Initially, a 2% cap on price movements, coupled with limited trading of only four hours a week, led to an absence of liquidity on the bourse and a lack of appetite for trading. By the middle of last year, of 37,000 registered investors in the 11 listed companies on the exchange, only 1200 had actually engaged in any trading.

Despite the recent increases, trading remains modest and confined to a few particular stocks; behind SIIB the next highest traded stock is the Bank of Syria and Overseas at S£375.4m, or less than half the volume, while only three companies out of 12 have broken the S£200m mark. While forming a trading culture will take time and regulations may indeed remain overly cautious, the biggest barrier to greater activity is nonetheless an absence of listed companies.

In an attempt to attract new listings in December the authorities reduced minimum capital requirements for the main market from $6.5m to $2.5m. Time will tell whether the move will have a significant impact; currently, a major barrier to Syria’s myriad family-owned corporations listing on the exchange is not so much an absence of capital as an absence of necessary financial disclosure. Changing accountancy procedures, which may require further reform of the tax code, is arguably the most pressing requirement to increase the number of listings.

Market appetite though is clearly in favour of new IPOs. An IPO by the local subsidiary of Bahrain’s Al Baraka last November was oversubscribed 3.4 times, with S£7.67bn ($167m) of capital chasing a 35% stake running to S£1.75bn ($38m). The news suggests that Syria’s financial institutions, which currently make up the large majority of listed companies, may succeed in meeting new regulations to raise capital from $30m to $200m ($300m in the case of Islamic banks) over the next three years. That in itself would represent a significant advancement in the DSE’s standing, as the bourse continues to evolve into a cornerstone of the new economy.

Mossad assassination squad used British passports’ – The Times, February 16, 2010

Why chuckles greeted Hillary’s Gulf tour by Rami Khouri – always good.

Game-Changer: Nasrallah Announces a New Hezbollah Deterrence Strategy by Qifa Nabki

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The United States should break Israel’s blockade of Gaza and deliver badly needed supplies by sea, a U.S. congressman told Gaza students.
Rep. Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, also urged President Barack Obama’s Mideast envoy to visit the Hamas-ruled territory to get a firsthand look at the destruction caused by Israeli’s military offensive last year…..
Israel allows humanitarian supplies and food into Gaza, but has kept out cement and other building supplies needed for reconstruction. Israel argues such materials could be diverted by Hamas for military use.
Baird, who has announced his retirement from Congress, told a group of Gaza students Sunday evening that the U.S. should not condone the blockade.
“We ought to bring roll-on, roll-off ships and roll them right to the beach and bring the relief supplies in, in our version of the Berlin airlift,” he said, adding that the supplies could be delivered to U.N. aid agencies.

Finally a good obituary of Amin al-Hafiz by Lawrence Joffe with a little help from Sami Moubayed

Amin al-Hafez obituary: Leader of Syria’s first Ba’athist regime
by Lawrence Joffe
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 16 February 2010

Hafez greatly admired Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. Photograph: AP

Amin al-Hafez, who has died aged 88, ruled Syria’s first Ba’athist administration with a genial smile and an iron fist during the turbulent years from 1963 to 1966. He was also the last genuine president from that country’s Sunni Muslim majority, since his successor was just a Sunni figurehead for two Alawite officers.

Although Hafez cemented Ba’ath party rule over Syria, he was more a military opportunist than a dedicated ideologue. Ultimately his dictatorial tendencies did not prevent his downfall, and his ties to an Israeli spy proved particularly embarrassing. Syria experienced stability, albeit of a nervous sort, only after Hafez al-Assad became president in 1970.

Al-Hafez’s first taste of politics came in 1958 as part of a Syrian army delegation that visited Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian president. The 14 officers beseeched the “hero of Suez” to rescue their coup-ridden nation. The two states duly merged into one United Arab Republic in February that year, and Hafez was posted to Cairo.

Soon formerly enthusiastic Ba’athists grew to loathe Nasser for banning their party and turning Syria into a virtual satrapy. The union crumbled after another Syrian uprising in September 1961, and the resultant secessionist regime banished the troublesome Hafez to Argentina as Syria’s military attaché.

Hafez returned to join the Ba’athist-led cabal that toppled Damascus’s pro-western government on 8 March 1963, a month after other Ba’athists had taken Iraq. Suddenly allied radicals were steering two of the region’s most powerful countries.

While Iraq’s Ba’athists were ousted within nine months, in Syria the party’s civilian founders cleverly used the bluff Major General Hafez as their military shield. In May 1963 he became interior minister. And after viciously crushing a pro-Egyptian rebellion on 18 July, submachine gun in hand, he was appointed president of the ruling National Council.

Hafez declared a state of emergency that still exists, and nationalised all Arab-owned banks and oil resources. He also improved ties with the Soviets, bankrolled Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Fatah guerrillas, and ordered engineers to divert two rivers that fed Israel’s share of the Jordan. The ensuing artillery exchanges across the Israeli-Syrian border almost certainly led to the 1967 six-day war. By then, however, Hafez had been toppled by a bloody coup on 23 February 1966.

Hafez was born in humble circumstances in Aleppo, northern Syria. The son of a policeman, he graduated from Syria’s military academy in 1946, the same year French troops left his country. Hafez gravitated towards the secular, anti-imperialist, pan-Arab Ba’ath party after fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Yet he remained at heart a Nasserist, and forlornly dreamt of reuniting Syria, Egypt and Iraq – even when his idol called him a fascist.

While in Buenos Aires, Hafez befriended a supposed Lebanese trader named Kamal Amin Thaabet, in reality an Egyptian-born Jewish Mossad agent, Eli Cohen. The spy arrived in Syria in early 1962, a year before Hafez’s return, and soon began relaying reports and photographs about Syrian military plans to Israel.

As president, Hafez groomed his friend to be a future defence minister, possibly even his successor. He invited him to banquets, thanked him for giving his wife a $1,000 fur coat and led him on tours of secret Golan Heights fortifications. When Cohen was caught red-handed in January 1965, Hafez personally interrogated him and arrested 500 of his high-placed friends. Brushing aside international pleas for clemency and his own qualms, Hafez ordered Cohen’s public execution, by hanging, in Damascus.

Hafez proved as ruthless when he crushed a Sunni uprising in 1964. He authorised the aerial bombing of the Sultan mosque in Hama and awarded himself new titles, including prime minister. But 15 reshuffles from 1963 onwards and numerous army purges eroded his limited support base. Most imprudently, he sacked Salah Jadid, the dynamic leftist general, as chief of staff in September 1965.

In the end, as the historian Sami Moubayed has noted, Hafez fell victim to his stubborn refusal to arbitrate between feuding Ba’ath factions. He seemed startled when Jadid and Assad, of the clandestine Ba’ath military committee, dared to challenge him.

Wounded in a three-hour shootout during their 1966 assault, Hafez was jailed in Damascus’s Mazza prison, then spirited away to Lebanon in June 1967, before relocating to Baghdad in 1968. Damascus sentenced Hafez to death, in absentia, in 1971. Yet Saddam Hussein treated him and his fellow exile, Ba’ath founder Michel Aflaq, like royalty. After the fall of Saddam in 2003, Hafez was allowed home. He received a state funeral. He is survived by his wife, Zainab, and their five children.

• Mohammed Amin al-Hafez, soldier and politician, born 1921; died 17 December 2009

Comments (11)


1. norman said:

Dear Joshua ,

in 2003 President Bush promised that Palestinians a home land and independent Palestine in 2005 in preparation for the attack on Iraq to cool down the Arab outrage , nothing came out of that promise ,

Now , do you think that the new Ambassador to Syria and the opening between the US and Syria is to make it difficult for Syria to side with Iran in the attack that is coming from the US , not Israel , Richard Haas was advocating an attack by the US and claiming that the US should not hide behind Israel’s skirt ,
If Israel attacks Iran the war will expand and will involve other parties but if the US attacks Iran , Iran will attack the US basses and Israel will be spared , Iran can not reach the US civilian centers , Hezbollah and Hams will find it difficult to join that fight ,

Haas said that President Obama is going to be on crossroad , accept Nuclear Iran which he thinks will destabilize the Mideast or attack Iran , and sooner better than later ,

So do you think that the US is trying to have something Syria will lose if it sides with Iran , it is going to be a hard choice for President Assad ,

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February 17th, 2010, 4:44 am

 

2. Henry said:

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2010
U.S. Marks Anniversary of Syrian Terrorist Act With Major Concession to Syria
Please subscribe for original coverage in real time

By Barry Rubin

Not all national disgraces appear in the headlines. February 14 was the fifth anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an event which led to a national peaceful uprising in non-Hizballah Lebanon that forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops and produced the short-lived Beirut Spring.

As a result, a moderate, independent-minded, pro-Western government came to power which wanted to minimize Iranian, Syrian, and Hizballah power in the country. That government was essentially betrayed—perhaps let down is a better phrase—by the United States and France, given little support until its enemies who, on contrast, were fully backed by their friends in Tehran and Damascus, made a comeback and are back in the government coalition with veto power. As a result, Lebanon has made a considerable move toward Iran’s orbit.

The investigation of Hariri’s murder has led straight to the highest levels of the Syrian government as having put out the contract on Hariri’’s life, along with other terrorist attacks in Lebanon that killed several members of parliament and dozens of bystanders. But the investigation has faltered due to lack of Western backing.

So while President Barack Obama called Hariri’s son to say the United States wants to find the murderers and encourage the investigation his policies have been the exact opposite. The U.S. refusal to send a new ambassador to Syria has been a key sign of American anger over the murders and leverage to press Syria toward cooperation with the investigation.

Now, however, a high-ranking U.S. official on that very anniversary has leaked that the United States has now made a significant concession to Syria by naming its first ambassador to Syria since that envoy was withdrawn after Hariri’s murder. A State Department official said that the Syrian government has accepted the U.S. candidate though we don’t yet know who is the choice.

True, this was not an official public announcement. But the fact is that everyone now knows that the decision has been made and the arrangements all put in place. Nobody in Washington will notice that this timing sends a signal to independent-minded Lebanese that the United States wants to forget about Hariri’s murder, accept Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah as holding Lebanon hostage and moving closer to making it a satellite.

Last autumn, the Obama Administration decided not to put defensive missiles into the Czech Republic and Poland on September 17, the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. This is a similar action.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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February 17th, 2010, 7:41 am

 

3. offended said:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8520247.stm

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said there is no proof the Mossad spy agency carried out the killing of a Hamas commander in Dubai.

“I don’t know why we are assuming that Israel, or the Mossad, used those passports,” he told Army Radio.

“There is no reason to think that it was the Israeli Mossad, and not some other intelligence service or country up to some mischief.”

He did not outright deny Israeli involvement.

“Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies,” he said. “There is no reason for Israel to change this policy.”

———————————
It gets even better:
———————————

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a “full investigation” into what happened.

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February 17th, 2010, 4:46 pm

 

4. Alex said:

ohhh … sweet and fragile Barry Rubin is still devastated 5 years after Hariri’s death. I can cry right now.

Just like the other sensitive individual, Michael Young who wrote an opinion piece about the same anniversary, that the NYT published last week.

Here is what Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has to say about that:

http://www.opednews.com/articles/1/NYT-Sees-UN-Syria-Conspira-by-Robert-Parry-100216-475.html

NY Times Promotes UN-Syria Conspiracy Theory

For OpEdNews: Robert Parry – Writer
From Consortium News

The New York Times simply refuses to deal with “enemy” Muslim states with any sense of objectivity or fairness, reaffirming its deep-seated bias again on Sunday with the publication of a one-sided article about the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on its fifth anniversary.

The article entitled “A U.N. Betrayal in Beirut” by op-ed contributor Michael Young argues that the original United Nations-authorized Hariri investigation, which pointed the finger of guilt at the Syrian government and its Lebanese allies, was correct but was then undercut by U.N. officials for political reasons.

The hero of the Times op-ed is German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who headed the initial U.N. inquiry and was subsequently replaced by Belgian investigator Serge Brammertz, who is portrayed as an incompetent who squandered Mehlis’s supposedly courageous work. Young wrote:

“Mr. Mehlis had few doubts about Syria’s involvement, and said so in his first report. He asked for President Assad’s testimony (over Syrian protests), interviewed Syrian intelligence officers in Vienna and arrested suspects. When Mr. Mehlis stepped down from his position in December, 2005, he felt he had enough to arrest at least one of the intelligence officers.

“However, the investigation wilted under his successor. ” Mr. Brammertz issued uninformative reports and displayed a lack of transparency that discouraged potential witnesses, unsure of whether he had solid evidence in hand, from coming forward; ” he failed to follow through on the interviews with the Syrian officers; and though he met with President Assad, he apparently did not formally take down his testimony.”

Young’s narrative fits with the Times’ previous hostility toward the Syrians regarding the Hariri case and other issues, much as the Times regularly tilted its coverage against Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and currently slants its reporting against the government of Iran.

On the Hariri case, the Times would have its readers believe that U.N. leaders lost their nerve and dumped a brilliant prosecutor in favor of an incompetent to sabotage the case.

But what Young and the Times failed to disclose on Sunday was that Mehlis’s initial investigation amounted to a rush to judgment that relied heavily on two witnesses whose testimony was later discredited or retracted. His successor, Brammertz, had no choice but to retrace Mehlis’s steps because there had been so many slip-ups.

The murder mystery began on Feb. 14, 2005, when an explosion destroyed a car carrying Hariri through the streets of Beirut.

Because Syria was then on President George W. Bush’s hit list for “regime change” and Syria was considered a front-line enemy of Israel speculative evidence of Syrian guilt was an easy sell to the U.S. news media. When Mehlis’s preliminary report was issued, there was little U.S. media skepticism about its assertions of guilt regarding Syrian leaders and their Lebanese allies.

“There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services,” declared Mehlis’s report on Oct. 20, 2005.

Despite the curiously vague wording “probable cause to believe” the killing “could not have been taken without the approval” and “without the collusion” Bush immediately termed the findings “very disturbing” and called for the U.N. Security Council to take action against Syria.

The U.S. press joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct. 25, 2005, a New York Times editorial said the U.N. investigation had been “tough and meticulous” in establishing “some deeply troubling facts” about Hariri’s murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies.

But Mehlis’s investigative report was anything but “meticulous.” Indeed, it read more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the truth.

As a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, Hariri had many enemies who might have wanted him dead for his business or political dealings. The Syrians were not alone in having a motive to eliminate Hariri.

Indeed, after the assassination, a videotape was delivered to al-Jazeera television on which a Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, claimed to have carried out the suicide bombing on behalf of Islamic militants angered by Hariri’s work for “the agent of the infidels” in Saudi Arabia.

However, Mehlis relied on two witnesses Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik and Hussam Taher Hussam to dismiss the videotape as part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect suspicion from Syria.

Mehlis then spun a narrative of a Syrian conspiracy to kill Hariri. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials were jailed on suspicion of involvement in Hariri’s murder. Everything was falling neatly into place.

As a new U.S. press hysteria built over another case of pure evil traced to the doorstep of an American adversary in the Muslim world, holes in the U.N. report were mostly ignored. At Consortiumnews.com, we produced one of the few critical examinations of what had the looks of a rush to judgment. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]

A Case Crumbles

Much like the Bush administration’s Iraqi WMD claims which the Times also touted uncritically Mehlis’s Hariri case against the Syrians soon began to crumble.

One witness, Saddik, was identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from his Hariri testimony. The other one, Hussam, recanted his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese officials.

Mehlis soon stepped down, as even the New York Times acknowledged that the conflicting accusations had given the investigation the feel of “a fictional spy thriller.” [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]

Mehlis’s subsequent replacements backed away from his Syrian accusations. Brammertz began entertaining other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and a number of potential perpetrators.

“Given the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range of public and private-sector activities, the [U.N.] commission was investigating a number of different motives, including political motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist ideologies, or any combination of those motivations,” Brammertz’s own interim report said, according to a U.N. statement on June 14, 2006.

In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis’s single-minded theory that had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials. Though Syria’s freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts remained on everyone’s suspect list, Brammertz adopted a far less confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria.

Still, the U.S. news media, which had played the initial Mehlis accusations against Syria as front-page news, barely mentioned the shift in the U.N. probe.

Virtually nothing appeared in the U.S. news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the distinct impression they got in 2005 that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut was now a whole lot fuzzier.

Instead, it remained common practice for the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream U.S. news media to continue citing the Mehlis report and referring to “Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri’s killing” without providing more context.

That pattern continued Sunday in Young’s article, with the online version linking to a 2005 story that trumpeted Mehlis’s initial report. Young and the Times cite no articles describing the subsequent collapse of Mehlis’s case.

Last year, the U.N. tribunal examining Hariri’s murder and other terrorist acts in Lebanon acknowledged that it lacked the evidence to indict the four Lebanese security officials who had been held without formal charges since 2005. Finally, Judge Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal ordered the four imprisoned security officials released.

In a similar situation say, one that involved a U.S. ally the release would have been viewed as proof of innocence or at least the absence of significant evidence of guilt.

In this case, however, the New York Times refused to acknowledge the obvious fact that the case against Syrian complicity was weak. Instead, the Times framed the development as underscoring “the legal pitfalls of a divisive international trial.” [NYT, April 30, 2009]

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/world/middleeast/30lebanon.html?_r=2&ref=world

That stubbornly one-sided approach has now extended to the fifth anniversary of the Hariri slaying. Instead of acknowledging the flaws in Mehlis’s initial findings or recognizing how recklessly premature those accusations were the Times is now promoting a conspiracy theory that U.N. officials willfully tanked the investigation.

Yet the only conspiracy that Young’s article seems to corroborate is the one in which the Times and its editors relentlessly portray Muslim governments that are out of Washington’s favor as the “bad guys.”

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February 17th, 2010, 5:20 pm

 

5. moto said:

haass, another israeli pretending to be american, wants only what is best for his country, israel.

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February 17th, 2010, 5:53 pm

 

6. idaf said:

Alex,

Thanks for posting Robert Parry’s article.

Where is Qifa Nabki? He would be glad to find out that I’m not the only one who thinks that Michael Young is proposing a grand conspiracy theory about the UN, US, Saudi, Hariri junior and Syria! 😉

But I like Qifa’s commentary on Nasrallah’s “game changer” speech. It is very true. Nasrallah has just set a new rules of engagement with Israel that will sure force the warmongers to stop using Lebanon as a punching bag for electioneering. Lebanon has finally grown some real teeth. For those who missed the very important speech yesterday, you can watch it here in full. The whole thing is a must see, but the most important part starts at minute 48:00 when he starts talking about the recent Syria- Israel spat, and continues to the end with the parts of the speech that ran repeatedly on Arab TVs for the past 24 hours:
http://media.almanar.com.lb/video/Nasrallah/sayed%2016-2-2010.wmv

I’m not sure how will Walid Moallem deal with the new title given to him by Hasan Nasrallah. He called him the “softest person in Syria” 🙂 (as a compliment though!)

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February 17th, 2010, 6:19 pm

 

7. moto said:

michael young, israeli living in beirut, gets space in the new york times by pointing to syria and not israel the assassin.

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February 17th, 2010, 6:27 pm

 

8. jad said:

I have no clue who runs Syria today and what is the regime/system/security mafia game is, but it’s absolutely alarming to see this fast move toward a definite crush.

By singling out a radical figure and take him out of prison and force judges to lower the case against him while the system/regime/security mafia keeps Detaining, Kidnapping and Fabricating some delusional accusations against secular, human rights activist, non-religious, non-biased proud Syrians men and women and put them away in jail for no reasons for very long years.

The way I see it is that this lethal combination of Security/religious systems bond is defiantly changing the face of Syria we know and changing the Syrian society mentality to become more of pro-radicals, anti-seculars and anti-freedom society. It is a very dangerous game and it wont end good.
That is something I deeply disappointed with and it takes away any hope I have/had that the System is changing or want to change anything soon.

إطلاق سراح الداعية الإسلامية عبد الرحمن الكوكي
http://all4syria.info/content/view/21648/96/

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February 17th, 2010, 6:59 pm

 

9. Welcome | Project on Middle East Democracy said:

[…] Landis unearths another possible impetus, noting that this relative diplomatic rapprochement might have something […]

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February 17th, 2010, 7:18 pm

 

10. Ghat Albird said:

MOTO said:

haass, another israeli pretending to be american…..

the following link lists names and affiliations of FRC members.

A must read for all.

http://theinfounderground.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=6201

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February 17th, 2010, 10:09 pm

 

11. America’s First Consul in Damascus, a Brief History « Hidden Cities said:

[…] economy is ripe after years of being closed. As Josh Landis recently wrote, “Syria has been hosting one delegation of American and European businessmen after […]

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February 22nd, 2010, 4:46 am

 

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