Posted by Joshua on Saturday, January 30th, 2010
UPDATE: Now Lebanon reporting that “US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell informed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of Obama’s decision [to nominate Ford as ambassador to Syria] during his visit to Damascus earlier this month, according to the daily” newspaper An-Nahar, in a piece published today by the very well-informed Hisham Melham (who scored the first post-inaugural Obama interview).
Robert Stephen Ford is a native of Maryland. He received his Master of Arts in 1983 from Johns Hopkins University. Ford is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service. He entered the service in 1985 and has been stationed in İzmir, Cairo, Algiers, and Yaoundé. Ford served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bahrain from 2001 until 2004, and Political Counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 until 2006. United States Ambassador to Algeria from Aug 11 2006 until June 26, 2008. Then he became America’s deputy ambassador to Iraq.
He is a recipient of several Department of State awards, including the 2005 James Clement Dunn Award for outstanding work at the mid-level in the Foreign Service as well as three Superior Honor Awards and two Meritorious Honor Awards.
U.S. to Name Ambassador to Syria
CBS News Learns Obama Administration Will Fill Long-Vacant Post in Move to Bolster Syrian-Israeli Peace Talks
By George Baghdadi, DAMASCUS, Jan. 30, 2010
(CBS) Five years after the United States pulled its envoy from Damascus in response to the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister, Washington is prepared to fill the post of Ambassador to Syria, CBS News has learned.
The U.S. had not had an ambassador in Syria since the Bush administration called back its envoy following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell named the new ambassador in a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad last week, according to an official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.
The United States has passed the name of a candidate to fill a post vacant for five years, and is waiting for feedback from Damascus, a State Department official revealed on Saturday.
“Yes, the request of the Ambassador was passed to the Syrians; however, we don’t have any personal announcement to make and we will not get into diplomatic exchanges,” the official added, refusing to name the envoy, apparently until Washington hears back from the Syrian government.
But diplomats in the Syrian capital said Washington’s intended Ambassador was Robert Stephen Ford, who until now has served as the deputy ambassador to Iraq.
Ford, who speaks Arabic fluently, has also served as the U.S. envoy to Algeria from 2006 to 2008, and is considered to be an expert in Mideast affairs.
“A decision was made last year to return an Ambassador to Syria and this is a concrete example of the administration’s commitment to use our tools, including dialogue, to address our concerns,” the official said in a telephone conversation.
“The decision reflects recognition of the importance of Syria’s role in the region and we hope that it will play constructive efforts to promote peace and stability in the region,” said the U.S. department official.
Mitchell’s visit to Syria, the third since he was appointed as President Obama’s envoy to the region, was to discuss how to re-launch the long-stalled Syrian-Israeli peace talks, and review bilateral relations…..
NICOSIA — Damascus has jailed two Syrians convicted of seeking to foment unrest in Iraq for nine and seven years, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday.
“The state security court on January 26 sentenced two Syrians, Abbas Yusif and Maher Yusif, to nine and seven years in prison, for attempting to cause trouble in Iraq,” SOHR said in a statement.
According to the newspaper Al-Iraqi, the condemned men were arrested “while trying to supply bombs to an armed group” in the war-torn country. The Iraqi paper did not give the group’s name, while the decision by the court in Damascus went unreported in the official Syrian media.
The Syrian advocacy group said the court also “interrogated Mustafa Ibrahim Qadhi, an Algerian, who had gone to fight in Iraq for Al-Qaeda and was then sent to Syria to liaise with groups there wishing to fight in Iraq,” adding that a new hearing has been scheduled for Sunday.
Damascus, which has been accused by Washington and Baghdad of facilitating the flow of Arab combatants into Iraq, has strengthened security along its porous borders in recent years and claims to have arrested hundreds of alleged insurgents.
Some Iraqi officials blamed people backed by Syria and Saudi Arabia for carrying out coordinated bombings in Baghdad on December 8 that killed 127 people.
Nearly 400 people were killed and more than 1,000 were wounded between August and December last year in coordinated vehicle bombings at government buildings, including the ministries of finance, foreign affairs and justice.
Experiencing the Real Syria
Boutique hotels in Damascus and Aleppo offer intimate service
By DON DUNCAN, Wall Street Journal
In the past few months, the long dried-up Quweiq River that runs through Aleppo has begun to flow anew, thanks to improved relations with neighboring country Turkey, whose dams control much of the water flowing into northern Syria. Changing diplomacy has also helped bring another kind of wave — tourists.
Visitor numbers through Syria’s main airport in the capital Damascus have doubled in the past five years to 4.5 million a year, according to the Damascus Chamber of Tourism, and signs of the bump are apparent everywhere. Damascus and Aleppo are the two cities with the most pulling power for tourists. At the core of their appeal are their respective old towns — medieval walled cities replete with religious sites, sprawling souks, miniscule porticos and maze-like alleys…..
Syria: A Year in Review 2009
Oxford Business Group
28 January 2010
As Syria prepares to take stock of the first decade under President Bashar Al Assad’s rule, observers of the Arab state will record a period of significant reform, the implications of which are steadily transforming both the country itself, and its standing in the wider region. With a new five-year plan under development however, 2010 will not be merely a year for reflection, but an important milestone in setting the tone of reform for the decade to come.
Of the various reforms undertaken over the past decade, perhaps the most significant have been those relating to the financial services sector. Prior to 2004, banking in Syria was a static state monopoly serviced by six public banks, with the largest being the Commercial Bank of Syria (CBoS). Following liberalisation however, 10 private commercial banks now operate in the country, while restrictions on convertibility have also been eased to allow Syrians to transfer up to $10,000 in foreign currency each month.
Private insurance companies and other financial services followed banks in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The liberalisation of capital that this process kick-started will transform Syria from “a socialist to a social market economy”. The capacity of private banks to finance capital projects is growing steadily, as demonstrated by Bank Audi Syria’s provision of a $380m bridging loan to Lafarge recently for the construction of a new cement works.
Numerous challenges do remain in the financial sector. The opening of the Damascus Securities Exchange in 2009 was a significant step in widening access to capital for the private sector, although listings have been limited. Likewise, in the continued absence of treasury bills, or certificates of deposit, private banks continue to have limited tools with which to price debt. A further decree issued in the second week of January 2010, requiring an increase in minimum capital from $30m to $200m, is also likely to prove controversial, though it was sweetened by a concession allowing private banks to increase their ownership from 49% to 60%, which may well result in more big hitters entering the Syrian banking sector in 2010.
As oil revenues continue to decline, the government will be hoping that investment – both in the form of capital from the nation’s new private banks, as well as foreign direct investment – will be able to ensure the 7% annual growth estimated to be required to provide enough jobs for Syria’s ever-expanding labour market. After early predictions from the government of 6% growth for 2009 (5.2% from the IMF), a downward revision was required midway through the year to account for the impact of continued drought in the agricultural sector and a severe recession in the textiles industry. The IMF revised growth expectations to 3% for 2009, although it expects 2010 to be more positive, with growth projected at 4.2%, while the government has announced growth of 4.5% for 2009.
One tenet of the government’s reform strategy has been improving business infrastructure – a crucial step, given that a major element in holding back more rapid growth is poor standards in accountancy among small and medium-sized private enterprises, which employ up to 70% of Syria’s workforce. Low standards prompted the government to delay indefinitely the introduction of value-added tax in 2009, thus hampering the transition of the state from oil revenues to tax-based revenues. Moreover, poor accountancy is affecting access to capital for these same companies from the nascent private banking sector. The expansion of Syria’s NGO sector (a feature of the 10th Five-Year Plan currently being concluded) means that there are now organisations such as the Syrian Enterprise and Business Centre, or indeed the First Microfinance Institution, which can provide advice and/or credit to private businesses, big and small. However, strengthening private enterprise will continue to remain an economic priority.
In all likelihood, the coming period will see further liberalisation of the economy, though not necessarily towards the US and EU. Instead, the beneficiary is likely to be Turkey, which recently concluded a visa exemption agreement with Syria, and has overseen the creation of a visa-free zone now including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
A Jewish voice warns against France’s ‘burqa ban’
By Joshua M. Z. Stanton
Friday, January 29, 2010
Cosmetic Eye-colour Surgery Sparks Alarm in Syria
By an IWPR-trained reporter
Friday, 29 January 2010 18:58
A controversial surgical operation carried out in Damascus to change the colour of a Syrian woman’s eyes has raised public fears about the safety of cosmetic surgery in the country.
The surgeon who performed the operation, Mohamad Shoujah, said the procedure that replaced the unidentified patient’s brown irises with artificial green ones was revolutionary.
He told a packed news conference at a hotel in Damascus in December that the surgery could be used not only for cosmetic purposes but also for the restoration of irises damaged as a result of an accident, a birth defect or a tumour.
“The operation consists in removing the iris and doing an implant of a totally new iris. The new iris is made of synthetic fibres…..