Posted by Joshua on Monday, February 23rd, 2009
Simon Tisdall gets the story and analysis right. This week has been confusing because a number of the US visitors to Damascus arrived with tough words that raised Syrian hackles and reminded us of rhetoric from the previous administration — i.e. Syria must end support for terrorism, Hizbullah, Hamas, Iran, etc. if it wants the US to change its attitude. Such language, we all know, is a non-starter. Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran are not considered terrorist by Syria. On the contrary they are seen as vital allies who fight for a just cause and help Syria make up for its terrible weakness in the face of Israeli military power and desire to hang on to the Golan Heights. Syria has demonstrated for decades now that it will not cut relations with allies that America designates as terrorists to win US engagement. Indeed, for it to do so would be tantamount to giving up the Golan Heights and raising its hands in defeat in the face of US and Israeli pressure. Syria can only afford to change its regional strategy once the Golan is safely returned. To abandon its regional assets before negotiations are joined would be simple stupidity.
At any rate, many in Syria were concerned that Obama’s people were singing that same tune as Bush’s people. Imad Moustapha and others are assuring us that this is not true and that there remains good reason to be patient and hopeful. Senator John Kerry said the same thing. So in the words of Tisdall, we need to indulge a bit of old style rhetoric as Obama’s people work behind the scenes to finesse the many land mines set by the Bush administration.
Policy advisers in Washington increasingly see improved relations with Damascus as crucial to peace in the Middle East
Simon Tisdall guardian.co.uk, Monday 23 February
As they review Middle East policy options, Barack Obama’s advisers face two fixed certainties. One is that there is no magic wand, no easy, pain-free way forward. Second, it’s crucial to distinguish between what you want and what you can get. As Bill Clinton and others before him discovered, they are not usually the same thing.
That said, all else is fungible. Analysts who assume Obama will somehow let Arab-Israeli peacemaking define his presidency overseas are firing wide. All the indications are that his will be a “realist” foreign policy guided by pragmatism and self-interest, as shown by the hard-nosed message Hillary Clinton in China has just sent to the “free Tibet” movement.
If in four years’ time, military confrontation with Iran has been avoided, the Iraq withdrawal has been managed honourably and without internal collapse and some kind of half-credible peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbours is in train, Obama’s people will probably call it a good result. Anything more would be a bonus.
As usual in the Middle East, these objectives are linked. What has been less evident until now is the degree to which improved US relations with Syria could hold the key to all three. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, certainly seems to think so.
During a weekend visit to Damascus, Kerry spoke optimistically of Syria’s role in reconciling Hamas and Fatah and promoting a Palestinian unity government withwhich Israel might be obliged to negotiate. He also claimed Syria was ready to help more on Iraqi security and on Lebanon, where the opening next monthof a controversialinternationaltribunal investigating the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri will be followed by summer elections. Syria has been accused of complicity in Hariri’s killing.
“I believe this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the US and Syria but in the relationship of the region,” said Kerry, who consulted Clinton before setting out.
Pro-western Arab states are making smiley faces, too. According to Syrian media reports, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief brought a message from King Abdullahstressing “bilateral ties and the importance of consultation and co-ordination” to a recent meeting with Assad. Riyadh may also return its ambassador to Damascus. Egypt is meanwhile doggedly hosting Palestinian unity talks.
Interviewed by the Guardian last week, Assad also seemed in the mood to talk. He stressed American indispensability in Middle East peacemaking and encouraged Obama to redeem his offer of resumed dialogue. He said he wanted actions, not words.
Officially Obama maintains the standard US positions that Syria must “change its behaviour” – meaning curb its backing for Hamas and Hezbollah, end political meddling in Lebanon and more closely support US objectives in Iraq and Iran.
But behind the scenes, it’s becoming clearer to Washington’s policy reviewers that better relations with Syria would serve multiple American purposes and that, with a bit of imagination and flexibility, previous sticking points might be finessed.
The US, for example, would not in practice demand an all-out Syrian break with Iran – an unrealistic aim. Rather it would look for a unilateral ending of some of their more objectionable joint activities, such as arms supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon, pending a mooted US-Iranian dialogue and a possible change of government in Tehran.
Other parts of this nascent two-way bargain could includeSyrian help in securing a smooth transition in Iraq; and bridge-building between Hamas and Fatah prior to the resumption of talks on a two-state solution. One theoretical offer in return is an easing of sanctions, a perhaps less judgmental view of the Hariricase, security guarantees and eventualdiplomatic and economic normalisation – increasingly important given Syria’s financial straits.
Most intriguing of all is the possibility that Team Obama, less than enamoured with a new rightwing Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, could use improving US ties with Damascus as leverage to encourage moderate thoughts in Tel Aviv.
More than anything, Assad wants the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Netanyahu insists he cannot have it – but Obama, like some leading Israeli centrists, may feel less strongly. If, as seems likely, he obstructs the Palestinian track, the Likud leader may have to give ground elsewhere, literally.
Politically speaking, Obama cannot and will not turn his back on Israel. But he may be prepared to squeeze, more so than his predecessors, primarily in pragmatic pursuit of key US regional interests. If Assad is smart, and that’s another imponderable, he’ll seize the moment.
“…However, Mr Assad has delayed the appointment of an ambassador to Beirut, prompting speculation that he is looking for some form of diplomatic reward for taking this step—such as an assurance that the US president, Barack Obama, will appoint a US ambassador to Damascus…Mr Obama is likely to send an ambassador to Damascus in due course. He can also be expected to approve including Syria on the itinerary of US officials visiting the region. These would be likely to include, in the first instance, the assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, a post for which an appointment has yet to be announced (one of the names said to be in the hat is Jeffrey Feltman,… bête noire to Syria’s Lebanese allies). Mr Assad has also expressed interest in receiving David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command, which suggests that he might be ready to offer some co-operation to the US in ensuring an orderly exit of its troops from Iraq….
The timing of an American ambassadorial appointment will be critical. Mr Obama could offer this move as an early gesture of goodwill. He could alternatively hold it back as means to maintain pressure on Syria in a number of sensitive areas. One of these is the Lebanese general election, which is scheduled to take place on June 7th. The election could see a shift in the balance of power towards Syria’s allies, led by Hizbullah, a Shia political and military group that the US wishes to be disarmed. If such a shift should occur as a result of what the US perceives to be Syrian interference, relations between Washington and Damascus could revert to their former coolness….
The US administration will also be looking at several other benchmarks of what it might describe as Syrian good behaviour. These include the negotiations about a long-term ceasefire in the Gaza Strip; the US expects Syria to use its influence on Hamas and Islamic Jihad to secure a favourable outcome….”
Sami Moubayedsets out steps that both the US and Syria can take to improve relations in his article:
Syria confident of US detente By Sami Moubayed
Recommended steps would be:
Start a gradual three stage program to lift the Syrian Accountability Act. The Syrians realize that this cannot be done overnight, since once sanctions become embedded into American law, it becomes very difficult to lift them. The sanctions come in the form of a menu, where sanctions are “selected” by the US president. Bush approved some, and left others hanging. Step one would be to start a “de-ticking” process, where the approved sanctions are lifted, one-at-a-time, to show the Syrians good faith. Eventually, the Accountability Act will still be there, but it will be a crippled law found only on paper.Remove Syria from the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism. Theoretically this would be easier since it doesn’t need Congress, but rather a decision from the secretary of state in coordination with the White House. Syria can condition that its name be removed before entering into the peace talks again, or wait until a peace treaty is signed then automatically its name will be crossed off.
Send an ambassador to Syria to fill a post that has been vacant since 2005. Unlike what most people believe, this cannot be done by Obama or Clinton alone; it needs the Senate which has to date not named a potential ambassador, nor has it suggested any potential candidates.
Help Syria deal with the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria’s territory, and publically acknowledge Syria’s cooperation with refugees and the security situation in Iraq, mainly border security. Under Bush, the US fully grasped Syria’s cooperation but refused to acknowledge it in public. That needs to come to an end.
Support Syria’s application to the World Trade Organization. It has already lifted the veto it once had on Europe signing the Association Agreement withDamascus. That agreement, frozen in 2005, was initialed by both sides last December and is expected to see final ratification in the first half of 2009, according to Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari.
Initiate an international peace conference, chaired by Obama, to bring all parties to the negotiating table with Israel in something that resembles Madrid II. Syria would condition, just as it did at Annapolis, that the Golan Heights be given top priority. Syria needs the US to broker a deal, but has stressed that it will not be accepting economic aid from the US, like Jordan, Egypt and Palestine. Strings come attached with such aid, the Syrians have always said, and the only requirement would be for the US to lift any kind of restrictions on Syria to enable investment, since the Syrian market is ripe and remains virgin. Syria can support itself, through commercial investment, banking, tourism and technology, and does not need American money.
As for Syria, it can:
Reopen the American Culture Center and the American school that were shut down after a US air raid on a Syrian town on the Syrian-Iraqi border last October.
Use its considerable influence with Hamas to bring an end to the fissure in the Palestinian Territories between the Islamic group and the West-backed Fateh party of President Mahmud Abbas. It has already done a good job at channeling messages back and forth between Hamas and the Europeans.
Take part in talks with Iran over its nuclear issue after the upcoming Iranian presidential elections next summer.
Continue to support the political process in Iraq, through Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malki who has managed in recent months to restore a certain degree of normalcy to Iraq. This would require Syria to invest in its strong relations withheavyweight Sunnis, tribal leaders and former Ba’athists. Results were clear in the provincial elections, when Sunnis took part, even in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, unlike the elections of 2005, when they collectively boycotted.
Syrians want to be seen as problem-solvers rather than problem-seekers. They want to show the world – mainly the US – that just as they can deliver on Palestine, they can deliver in Iraq and Lebanon. Syria has said these words in every possible language, and it will continue to show the West that it can deliver in the Middle East. For years the Syrians have been saying that reforms cannot be made unless there are no regional and international threats threatening Damascus.
When regime-change was on the table in Washington back in 2005, reforms were slowed down on more than one level, politics included. The Syrians always said that reforms cannot be made only because they are a requirement of Europe or the US; they cannot be parachuted on the Syrians. If Syria feels comfortable, as it does now, then the reform process might be given a facelift.
Last week, speaking at the Arab Writers Union Congress in Damascus, Haitham Satayhi, member of the Regional Command of the ruling Ba’ath Party, announced that there were instructions to improve relations between the security services and Syrian citizens. There was a determination to combat corruption and “achieve more democracy in the political domain”.
Satayhiadded that a special committee has been set up to study and prepare a political party law in Syria to allow for more political pluralism, as promised by the Ba’athParty Congress of 2005. If anything, this shows that Syria feels very confident, and is not worried, as many in the Western press had speculated, about the internationaltribunal that will begin on March 1 for the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq al-Harriri. …
Drought blamed for food scarcity
Photo: Abigail Fielding-Smith/IRIN
The Syrian bread and cereals price index marked a 27 percent increase over January 2008 prices
DAMASCUS, 22 February 2009 (IRIN) – Two years of drought has left many farmers and herders without an income and has severely limited cereal production in Syria, pushing up local food prices and putting pressure on basic food supplies, according to UN and Syrian government officials.
In 2008, Syria had to import wheat for the first time after a shortage caused by a second year of drought, which the Syrian government says has affected about a million people so far. Emergency wheat stocks have been depleted though adequate supplies remain.
“There is still enough food in Syria to go round,” Abdullah Mawazini, Public Information Officer for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Syria, said. “But we are worried about the provision of basic materials. It is a dangerous indicator for Syria that last year we had to import wheat.”
Syria usually keeps three years’ worth of wheat stocks, Mawazini said, but in 2008 it agreed to sell supplies to countries struggling with a lack of food, including Egypt and Tunisia.
”There is still enough food in Syria to go round. But we are worried about the provision of basic materials. It is a dangerous indicator for Syria that last year we had to import wheat.”
Syria is usually self-sufficient in providing food for its 21.6 million population. UN agencies warn that the country could become more food insecure if rainfall over the next two months remains as low as it has been at the start of 2009.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that wheat production in non-irrigated areas of Syria dropped by 82 percent compared with the previous season, while the barley harvest in non-irrigated areas failed entirely. Overall wheat and barley yields dropped by 47 and 67 percent respectively compared to the previous year, said the FAO.
Because of a high level of subsistence farming in Syria, many families have lost not just their income, but their means of feeding themselves. “Many farmers’ crops failed entirely,” Abdulla Tahir Bin Yehia, FAO representative in Syria, said. “It hits them very hard. No crop means no income. And on top of that they need to buy food and seeds which are at higher prices because of the crop failure.”
The knock-on effects of reduced food production include a rise in food prices, malnutrition, migration from the countryside, an increased school dropout rate and added pressure on the job market as farmers seek other employment.
“The reduced availability of wheat and barley has contributed to increases in the prices of food items in the Syrian market,” Mawazinisaid. The Syrian bread and cereals price index marked a 27 percent increase over January 2008 prices. This, a joint UN report said, has outstripped household incomes and the purchasing power of the general population, especially in the drought-affected areas.
Failed crops have led to a higher school dropout rate and greater migration from the country to urban areas
Herders have also been affected. With reduced pasture, there is less space for their animals to graze. The cost of animal feed has soared. Some 59,000 small herders (those with less than 100 animals) lost almost all their livestock. This has led to drastic measures.
“Herders and farmers have sold off their assets: land, animals, houses, furniture, jewellery – all for low prices,” Bin Yehia said. “The poorest are affected most. These include many women-headed households.”
Many of those affected have migrated to urban areas, causing rural school dropout rates to rise. According to the UN, migration rates from rural to urban areas have increased by 20 to 30 percent year-on-year from 2007 to 2008.
A drought appeal was launched by UN agencies in Syria in September 2008. A US$1.8 million emergency operation by the FAO identified 9,630 farmers to receive 300kg of wheat seeds or 150kg of barley seeds – enough for each farmer to plant a two-hectare crop. These were distributed in December and January.
It also helped stall migration. “Many farmers came back to the villages when they heard they were eligible for seeds,” Bin Yehia of FAO said. “It is imperative to future food security that they do not give up farming.”
The joint FAO-WFP response continues until May 2009. But if rainfall continues to be low, a new appeal will be launched.
VIENNA – A U.S. senator says the plight of Iraqi refugees in Syria is desperate.
Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland says he met some of the refugees this week on a visit to Syria and saw what they’re going through. He says he’s urging the U.S. and the international community to do more to alleviate what he calls a humanitarian crisis.
Syria has taken in the largest number of refugees fleeing Iraq and has long demanded greater international support to handle the strain on its housing, health care and educational system. Syria estimates there are 1.1 million refugees in the country.
Imad Moustapha in the following article in Arabic explains that his invitation to talk at the State Department this week is a courteousinvitation and not a summons. He will be discussing various topics of mutualinterest to both countries and not being dressed down for failure to comply with the UN non-proliferation treaty.
عماد مصطفى: لا صحة لما تناقلته الفضائيات.. و مصدر امريكي يؤكد : دعوة السفير مصطفى هدفها التباحث في قضايا تهم دمشق وواشنطن أكد السفير الدكتور عماد مصطفى أنه لا صحة لما سوقته الفضائيات بشأن استدعاء وزارة الخارجية الأميركية له بشأن ما سمته المخاوف الأميركية من عدة قضايا بينها معلومات وكالة الطاقة الذرية و قال :” الصحيح هو أنه تمت دعوتي إلى وزارة الخارجية الأميركية للانخراط في نقاش حول جميع الأمور المتعلقة بالعلاقات السورية ـ الأميركي و أكد صدر أمريكي أن ما تناقلته وسائل الإعلام عن استدعاء السفير مصطفى إلى الخارجية الأمريكية غير صحيح. وأوضح المصدر الأمريكي أن ما تلقاه السفير السوري في واشنطن من الخارجية الأمريكية ليس استدعاء بل دعوة للقاء من أجل التباحث في قضايا تهم البلدين.
وحسب المصدر ذاته فأن كلمة استدعاء تحمل معنى احتجاجياً، في حين أن اللقاء سيكون لاستعادة الحوار بين سورية وأمريكا عبر القنوات الدبلوماسية المعتمدة
A weekend rocket attack on Israel from southern Lebanon was seen as an Iranian reaction to remarks by hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu who has named Tehran as Israel’s main threat.
The daily An Nahar on Sunday quoted high-ranking officials up-to-date with Saturday’s incident as saying that evidence show that the motive behind the rocket attack that injured three Israeli people was “an Iranian response to Netanyahu’s remarks.”
Netanyahu’s statement on Friday came after accepting the task of forming a new government in the wake of the tight elections.
“Iran is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon and constitutes the gravest threat to our existence since the war of independence,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony at President Shimon Peres’s official residence.
“The terrorist forces of Iran threaten us from the north,” he said in reference to Lebanon and Syria, where Israel says Tehran supplies arms to Hizbullah and Hamas.
The sources told An Nahar that the rocket attack could also possibly be a “message” to Damascus, which at the time of the assault was receiving U.S Senator John Kerry as the new U.S administration reviews its policies towards such states in the Middle East.
Syria willing to help on Palestinian unity says Kerry
Sat Feb 21, 2009, By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Syria has indicated it is willing to help bring about a Palestinian unity government that could restart peace talks with Israel, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Saturday.
Syria, which is under U.S. sanctions, hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas and has influence on the Palestinian group which controls Gaza.
“Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government,” Senator John Kerry told reporters after meeting President Bashar al-Assad.
“If you achieve that, then you have made a major step forward not only in dealing with the problems of Gaza but you have made a major step forward in terms of how you reignite discussions for the two-state solution … I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect.”
Syria takes cautious path on stocks
From Institute for War and Peace Reporting
The Syrian authorities are hoping that the country’s first stock exchange will boost the emerging private sector, although it could hardly have started up under more adverse market conditions.
…The official inauguration is scheduled for March 9. The trial also gave the Egyptian-trained brokers and other staff an induction period, including opportunities to practice dealing with emergencies such as systems breakdowns.
As Syria attempts to shift from a centralized socialist system to a “social market economy”, the authorities have introduced legal and regulatory reforms to get the financial sector into better shape. Private banking was legalized in 2001, and more recently private ownership rights were increased. The stock exchange is the latest step in this process, and there are hopes it will stimulate investment in the private sector.
The way was paved for the DSE by a presidential decree issued in 2006, but it has been delayed repeatedly because of problems in acquiring the right technology. A report by Oxford Business group published last year said a United States economic embargo had hampered Syria’s attempts to purchase electronic-trading systems.
The DSE, which is operating under the aegis of the government, will trade only on Mondays and Thursdays, and will be subject to restrictions designed to restrict speculative trading and abrupt changes in share prices. “The Damascus stock exchange will not be open to gambling or risk-taking,” said DSE board chairman Ratib al-Shalah in remarks quoted by the SANA news agency. “Shares can only be traded by those who want to invest money, not for speculation.”
DSE deputy chairman Saqr Aslan has made it clear that the value of shares in any company listed on the exchange will not be allowed to rise by more than 2% in the course of a day’s trading. Nor can shares be bought and resold on the same day.
The pilot phase involves just five companies, most of them local banks withforeign capital. The DSE says that about 30 companies, half of them in the banking and insurance sectors, are at present eligible to take part once the exchange is fully up and running. For a company to qualify, it has to be at least one year old, have a minimum capital of 100 million Syrian liras and at least 100 shareholders.
The DSE’s Aslan told the Syria News website that he expected 15 companies to be listed, with totalcapital of some 28 billion liras.