Posted by Joshua on Monday, January 29th, 2007
I have been away from my blog for 10 days and much has happened. I will try to cover the main events briefly.
1. President Bush's state of the Union speech largely gave Syria a pass. He mentioned Syria only once as a troublemaker. The focus was Iran. The number of covert plans being prepared to squeeze Iran and limit its regional reach has been expanded according to the Washington Post.
Friday, the Washington Post reported Bush's authorization of a new, more intensive policy that allows for more stringent measures against Iran. This includes, primarily, the authority to capture or kill Iranian agents active in Iraq, a story Bush and other US officials did not deny. However, the new policy extends far beyond Iraq.
The Post reported that the new plan is part of a wider US strategy aimed at destroying Iranian influence from Afghanistan to Lebanon, as well as to hinder Iran's nuclear program. In this context, the plan addresses known terrorist entities within the sphere of Iran's influence, such as Hizbullah.
According the Post, during the Lebanon war, senior US officials concluded on the importance of exposing the connection between Iran's nuclear plan and its extensive assistance in arming, training and funding terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, Hizbullah and insurgent militias in Iraq.
As part of the new plan, US intelligence has now begun covert operations against Hizbullah. It is also focused on weakening Tehran's funding chain to Hizbullah and to various Palestinian terror organizations.
Iran politicians are trying to step back from the brink and take some of the heat out of their inflamed relations with the US. This is being done by giving Ahmadinejad his comeuppance. The New York Time's Sunday Magazine has an excellent story on this. (posted on a free site.) It would be a mistake to read the power struggle among Iran's politicians as a indication that it is changing its policy significantly. Iran has announced an ambitious plan on to greatly expand its economic and military ties with Iraq, just as the Bush administration has been warning the Iranians to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs.
Evidence that the Iranian government is supplying weapons or fighters to militias in Iraq is weak argues Gareth Porter in his article: US lacks 'explosive' evidence against Iran. In fact, US military brass have said as much. Porter writes: "For 18 months, the administration of US President George W Bush has periodically raised the charge that Iran is supplying anti-coalition forces in Iraq with arms. Previously, high administration officials have always admitted that they had no real evidence to support these claims. The LA Times has this article: Scant evidence found of Iran-Iraq arms link.
The NYTimes reports that the United States has said that evidence gleaned in a Baghdad raid, made on an Iraqi Shiite leader’s residential compound, proves the Iranians were involved in planning attacks, even though US officials gave little evidence. Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Mr. Qumi ridiculed the evidence that the American military has said it collected.
Next week, American military officials are expected to make their most comprehensive case — based on materials seized in recent raids — that Iran's elite Quds force is behind many of the most lethal attacks. The New York Times is now also suggesting that the evidence will be less than compelling. David Sanger writes that "the administration does not have definitive evidence that Iran is moving toward producing a nuclear bomb" either.
Jalal Talabani, Iraq's President visited Syria last week and was quite expansive about Syria's effort to patch up relations between the two countries, although Iraqi officials want Syria to turn over leading Baathists, which they have yet to do. Bashar al-Asad clearly believes that the present Iraqi government is going to survive in some form and that Syria's best interests lie in moving ahead with good relations. For the time being Washington is winning the game of chicken the it has played with Syria over Iraq. Syria hoped it could use the Iraq card to break Washington's isolation policy. Washington used the card right back, insisting that if Syria encouraged the Iraqi resistance, Damascus would inevitably pay the higher price because lawlessness, fundamentalism and sectarianism would wash into Syria. Syrian officials are undoubtedly telling themselves that by improving relations with the American backed Iraqi government, Syria will ultimately make it easier for Malaki and the Shiite government to turn against America.
Here is the good press Talabani gave Syria.
Talabani gestures during an interview in Damascus
"There is no justification for a stern (U.S.) stance on Syria," said Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Sunday. "I personally will seek to give a true picture about Syria's intentions and policy to the U.S. administration and I will seek to encourage our American friends to have a dialogue with Syria," he told Al Arabiya television.
He will push for dialogue between the United States and neighbouring Syria, which he said was helping Baghdad clamp down on terrorism. Talabani, who paid a landmark visit to Syria earlier this month, said "Syria wants … stability in Iraq and is backing us in fighting terrorism."
"It would be more appropriate for the United States to have a dialogue with Syria," Talabani said when asked what would be his advice to U.S. President George W. Bush, who had rejected direct talks with Syria and Iran, ignoring a recommendation by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
Syria's U.S. ties went frosty when President Bashar al-Assad voiced opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. Iraqi and U.S. officials have often accused Syria of not doing enough to stop the flow of militants crossing its Iraqi borders to fight U.S.-led troops. Damascus repeatedly said it was doing all it can to control the long desert border. U.S. relations with Syria plummeted further in 2005 after the killing of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Syrian ally turned foe. Many Lebanese politicians accused Syria of killing Hariri, a charge Damascus denies vehemently.
Talabani said during his visit to Syria that Iraq would ask Syria to hand over senior Saddam Hussein aides suspected of stealing millions of dollars and helping the anti-U.S. insurgency. Asked if Iraq has asked Syria to hand over Iraqi opposition figures, he said: "We will not ask for handing over political opponents and Syria would not be willing to hand them over."
"All we want from Syria in this regard is not to allow the presence of leaderships of Iraqi organisations that work with weapons against the legitimate Iraqi government. We ask it to advise the leaderships of these groups to … join national reconciliation and the peaceful democratic process in Iraq."
Syria, for the first time calls militia violence in Iraq "terrorism."
Syria vows to stabilise Iraq, condemns rebel attacks: 20 Jan 2007, DAMASCUS, Jan 20 (Reuters) –
Syria on Saturday condemned insurgent attacks on the U.S.-backed Iraqi army and security forces, calling it terrorism, in a fresh shift in the position of the Damascus government towards its neighbour.
In a communique issued at the end of a visit by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Damascus, Syria vowed to help stop civil strife in Iraq despite opposing the U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 but ushered in sectarian conflict.
Secretary Rice has become an Arab nationalist! Here she is quoted in the NYTimes admonishing the Arabs to become more nationalist: “There’s still a tendency to see these things in Sunni-Shia terms,” Ms. Rice said. “But the Middle East is going to have to overcome that.” She added that neighboring Sunni-led Arab states should understand that Iraq’s Shiite-led government primarily saw itself as Arab and that the only way it would ally itself with Iran, which is Shiite but not Arab, would be “if people deny the Shia-led Iraq a place in the Arab world.”
Meanwhile America's best ally, Israel, is warning against Arab nationalism. Amotz Asa-El argues in "Middle Israel: The problem with Syria" that Israel must see things in Sunni-Shiite terms. He does not want a peace deal with Syria so long as it is ruled by a "heretical Shiite sect, the Alawites." Taking a noble stand for democracy, Asa-El explains that the silent majority in Israel must not make deals with religious minority rulers in Syria because it would be doing an injustice to orthodox Muslim sentiment. He reminds us that "To the Sunnis who dominate the Arab world, and constitute 75 percent of Syria's population, the Alawites are heretics." Hence Israelis should not trust or deal with the "secular" regime, because it is a mirage which will soon crumble. One can only presume, he advocates waiting until fundamentalists take power in Syria before handing back the Golan. Israel made the same argument in the case of the Palestinians – no deal with the PLO because they are not representative – but when Hamas was duly elected and Haniyyah took over from the secular Arafat, Israel reversed its position. It couldn't deal with fundamentalists and preferred the PLO. Delicious irony, perhaps, if it weren't so – the old bait and switch. What is more, Syria under an Alawite president has been infinitely more stable and capable of fulfilling its commitments than it was under previous Sunni presidents. This is a red haring.
Ibrahim Suleiman, the US based Syrian who carried out unofficial peace negotiations with Israeli counterparts for two years, explained In an interview with the Ynet Internet site that Israel was offered "a confidence-building measure" that had been prepared by himself, European and Syrian officials. "This was a critical thing, a confidence-building measure … The Israelis would have loved it. They would have celebrated it. Olmert's deputy said yes, then a week later he sent an email that said: 'No, we've changed our minds.'"
He said that it was something of which Israelis never dreamed and would have cost them nothing.
Suleiman said that a week after the meeting with Turbowicz, the European mediator received an email saying that Olmert was not interested in the initiative. "For some reason beyond my understanding, the Americans don't want peace between Syria and Israel," he continued. "Syria is trying and I'm trying, but damn it, there's a limit to how much we can give."
Rime Allaf of Chatham House explains that Suleiman's negotiated deal with his Israeli counterpart was too generous and gave away more than her father offered in 1990. Many of the comments suggest many Syrians agree with her.
|'Dialogue with Syria now'
Former Shin Bet Chief Yaakov Peri says peace negotiations with Damascus would neutralize threat of rocket attacks from the north, stop Syrian funding to Hizbullah and stop Syria's support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad
Full Story . . .
Turkish economic officials said on Thursday Turkey is giving priority to boosting commercial relations with Syria more than those with any other neighboring country.
Iraq continues to witness escalating violence. 250 Insurgents Killed in Iraq yesterday, but the numbers are probably higher.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is one of the best reporters in Iraq. His recent stories for the Guardian: 'If they pay we kill them anyway' – the kidnapper's story, January 27, about his meeting with the commander of a Shia death squad. And 'The jihad now is against the Shias, not the Americans' are both chilling and explain how broken the government has become.
Robert Malley of ICG argues forcefully that the Iraqi government is broken and beyond repair in testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee, presented as part of a series of hearings that led the committee to reject the Bush strategy as it now stands.