Syria’s New Tax Code

Addendum by Ehsani2 (May 22, 2009)

The initial impetus for my comment on taxes came from reading the latest change in Syria’s tax code. The amendment concerned the initial tax bracket that is exempt from taxation. Income up to SYP 5,000 was exempt from tax. This number was raised to just over SYP 6,000. The rationale of the amendment seems to be an acknowledgment that an income as low as SYP 6,000 ($130 per month and $1,560 per year) ought to be exempt from tax.

In the U.S., a taxable income (after deductions and exemptions) of $100,000 per year ($8,333 per month) is taxed around $22,372 for the year ($1,864 a month). Households are then taxed at the state and local levels in addition to the above federal taxes. Indeed, starting next year, those making over $373,000 per year will be taxed at 39.6% up from 35%. Total taxes for high income residents of the state of NY are likely to pay just over 50% of their income. Europeans are already very familiar with such tax brackets. Syrians “were” all too familiar with this too. There was a time when the highest income bracket in Syria faced a tax levy approaching 80%.

The Syrian tax code has been streamlined significantly since then. To encourage compliance, the highest tax bracket has been lowered to 22%.

I am jealous. I wish my American taxes would be as low. What is considered a socialist country (by its own constitution) taxes its highest earners a maximum of 22% while the world’s leading capitalist nation chooses to tax its own high earners as high as 52%. It was in this context that I made my initial observation.

What bothers me about the Syrian tax system is the following:

It is hard to live on $130 or even $1600 a month. Paying any tax on income over $130 a month seems harsh. People working for the government and those on fixed income get their taxes deducted from their income at the source. The current tax code assumes that the highest tax bracket is $1630 a month and this is taxed at 22%. As many people may agree, making $1630 a month does not go a long way in Damascus and is certainly not in the spirit of being a high earner.

When I asked a leading business man in Damascus how he feels about paying “only” 20% on income, I got this response:

“Why should I pay 20%? What do I get for that? What services does the Government provide me with?”

This response is rather common for most high rollers in the country.

The fact is that the Government provides plenty of services but gets very little credit for doing so. Education is free at all levels of schools and universities. Many commodities and finished products are heavily subsidized. Yet, no one thinks of these as “services”. Most people see them as a right.

Tax compliance for high income earners is difficult in most less developed countries. Syria is no exception. Not only that the 22% highest tax bracket is rather low by world standards, most high rollers seem to find a way to avoid paying it altogether. One business man boasted to me once that he does not recall the last time he paid any tax.

Syria faces fiscal pressures going forward. Its population doubles roughly every 22 years. It has very expensive subsidy program that it finds hard to dissolve. Its tax collection and compliance program for non-fixed income earners is weak. Those that are wealthy enough to pay the tax are too connected and too powerful to pay their fair share. Low paid government employees in charge of collecting the tax are no match for the business tycoons and their ample resources.

Ehsani2 writes about Syria’s new tax code:

Even a capitalist like me finds Syria’s economic system too capitalist. The fat cats pay hardly anything while those on fixed incomes pay the following based on the new decree.

Monthly earning range Tax rate
$0-$131 0%
$132-$261 5%
$262-$348 7%
$349-$435 9%

More on Syria’s tax system:

if you make $ 1,000 per month, your tax is $106 or 10.6%
if you make $ 2,000 per month, your tax is $311 or 15.5%
if you make $ 5,000 per month, your tax is $971 or 19.4%
if you make $10,000 per month, your tax is $2,071 or 20.7%
if you make $50,000 per month, your tax is $10,871 or 21.7%
if you make $100,000 per month, your tax is $21,871 or 21.9%
if you make $500,000 per month, your tax is $109,871 or 22.0%

…….WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? ……..The poor pay that 20%….while the rich, capped at 20% do not pay it ………In effect people on fixed incomes pay while the fat cats watch.

414 Syrian intellectuals banned from Travel. The following article published in Kulina Shuraka reveals that a new report describes the many Syrians who have had their passports taken away.

أسماء المثقفين والإعلاميين والمحامين والفهمانين الممنوعين من السفر
طباعة أرسل لصديق
خاص – (كلنا شركاء)
22/ 05/ 2009

كشف تقرير سوري اليوم عن قائمة تضم ( 414 ) اسماً لسياسيين وكتاب وصحفيين وحقوقيين سوريين ممنوعين من السفر خارج البلاد لأسببا مختلفة، منهم 71% أتى منعهم على خلفية نشاط سياسي فيما يشكل الممنوعون من السفر على خلفية نشاط حقوقي 24%.
وأكد التقرير الصادر عن المركز السوري للإعلام وحرية التعبير، أن العدد الحقيقي للممنوعين من السفر هو أكبر من ذلك لكن هذا الرقم هو حصيلة ما أمكن جمعه استناداً للبيانات المتوفرة والتي ساهمت بها هيئات ومنظمات حقوقية عديدة.
وفي القسم الذي أسماه التقرير خارطة المنع من السفر في سورية، وبعد إشارته لأن نسبة الخطأ في البيانات تقارب ( 3.7 % ) فقط، أوضح التقرير أن الممنوعين من السفر من المقيمين خارج سورية يقاربون 3% فيما الممنوعون وهم بداخل السجون السورية يشكلون 2%
ويوضح التقرير أن النسبة الاكبر من الممنوعين من السفر ينتمون إلى محافظة الحسكة تليها محافظة اللاذقية فدمشق ثم السلمية وحلب…
كما يشكل الذكور 91% من عدد الممنوعين من السفر، والباقي من النساء.
أما عن مهن واختصاصات الممنوعين من السفر فبحسب التقرير يأتي في المقام الأول المهن الحرة، ثم الكتاب والصحفيون، يليه المدرسين والمهندسين فأصحاب المهن القانونية.

Syria to Open Its Economy to Foreign Investors
By JAY SOLOMON, MAY 14, 2009

WASHINGTON — Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is pushing ahead with steps to open up its economy to investment, senior Syrian officials said, although the U.S. is maintaining broad economic sanctions on the Arab nation.

Damascus is preparing to grant new private-banking licenses to foreign investors, while expanding the Damascus Securities Exchange, which made its debut in March, these officials said. It’s also wooing foreign investment in manufacturing and tourism to support economic growth, which has averaged about 5% over the past five years.

“This economy is virgin. There are many opportunities to explore,” Central Bank Governor Adib Mayaleh said in an interview.

Two men in a Damascus café beneath a poster showing Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon. The U.S. is hoping to improve relations with Mr. Assad’s government in an effort to weaken Syrian alliances with Iran and groups such as Hezbollah.

Two men in a Damascus caf[eacute] beneath a poster showing Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon. The U.S. is hoping to improve relations with Mr. Assad’s government in an effort to weaken Syrian alliances with Iran and groups such as Hezbollah.

Two men in a Damascus caf[eacute] beneath a poster showing Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon. The U.S. is hoping to improve relations with Mr. Assad’s government in an effort to weaken Syrian alliances with Iran and groups such as Hezbollah.

It’s a new direction for Damascus, which has maintained one of the Middle East’s most closed economies in recent decades. Middle East analysts also question whether Mr. Assad can achieve his economic goals without changing his authoritarian political system and improving relations with Washington.

President Barack Obama has said he is interested in developing better ties with Syria and sent two high-level diplomatic delegations to Damascus. But last week, Mr. Obama renewed five-year-old economic sanctions on Damascus because of U.S. concerns about Syrian support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, operating in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

U.S. officials also charge that Damascus continues to facilitate the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, an allegation Syria denies.
[Syria]

Mr. Assad assumed power from his late father, Hafez Assad, in 2000 amid high hopes that the new leader’s youth and Western education could lead to changes in Syria’s rigid one-party state.

Mr. Assad, 43 years old, has displayed little appetite for opening Syria’s political system, say Middle East analysts, imprisoning pro-democracy activists in recent years and closing independent media outlets. The International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions, however, praise Mr. Assad and his economic planners for liberalizing finance and trade while reorienting Syria’s economy away from a dependence on oil as their domestic production dwindled. Damascus has moved from exporting nearly 700,000 barrels of oil a day in the mid-1990s to becoming a net importer of oil.

As recently as 2004, the state controlled the banking system. Today, about a dozen private banks — mostly Arab-owned — operate, Syrian officials said. Damascus pegged the Syrian pound to an IMF-administered basket of currencies and allowed its largely free conversion into U.S. dollars. The government is privatizing some state-owned firms and bringing in independent managers to help oversee others. Foreign direct investment in Syria jumped to $2.1 billion last year from $400 million in 2004, according to the IMF. Syria’s non-oil exports, meanwhile, are projected to grow to more than $9 billion next year from less than $4 billion in 2004.

“We see a clear move toward economic reforms in Syria,” said Khaled Sakr, the IMF’s mission chief for the country. “It’s cautiously and steadily moving in the right direction.”

Mr. Mayaleh, the central-bank governor, said another seven to eight private banking licenses will be put up for bidding, and Damascus hopes to see an additional 10 companies listed on the Syrian stock exchange. “We’re open for investment in our economy,” he said.

Analysts say Syria’s economy still faces significant challenges. Damascus is running sizable annual budget deficits, and it is unclear whether the country can develop new streams of revenue to offset dwindling oil supplies. Mr. Assad has been criticized by Washington for directing contracts to his family and political allies.

The Truth About Richard Bruce Cheney
by Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson
The Washington Note

Report: Russia won’t sell Syria fighter jets due to Israeli pressure
By Reuters, 20/05/2009

Russia has halted plans to sell MIG-31 fighter jets to Syria because of pressure from Israel, the Kommersant daily reported on Wednesday citing an unidentified source in Russia’s defense industry.

In 2007, Russia agreed to supply Syria with eight MiG-31 fighters, known in the West by NATO codename Foxhound, for about $400-$500 million, the paper said.

Kommersant, a commerce-oriented newspaper published in Russia, quoted an unidentified person close to Russia’s state arms exporter as saying that Moscow had halted the contract due to pressure from Israel.

The paper quoted another source in an unidentified Russian ministry as saying that the contract had been halted because Syria could not produce the money to pay for the fighters.

The MiG-31 is a supersonic, high-altitude fighter plane. It has a maximum speed of 3,000 km/hour (1,860 miles/hour) and a combat radius of 720 km (450 miles.)

Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, declined to comment on the report. A spokesman for the Syrian embassy in Moscow was unavailable for comment.

Russia’s defense industry, which says it is starved for investment, was rattled last year when Algeria returned 15 MiG-29SMTs to Russia, saying the aircraft contained some substandard parts.


Syria and the ‘China Growth Model’

Ben Simpfendorfer, 05.21.09
Chinese traders say Syria is no ‘Axis of Evil.’

HONG KONG — Below is the last of three excerpts from “The New Silk Road,” by Ben Simpfendorfer, reproduced with the permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

In July 2004, President Bush spoke of an Axis of Evil during his State of the Union Address. It was a bold declaration made in the aftermath of September 11.

Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were the original members of the Axis of Evil. But Under Secretary of State John Bolton added Syria to the list the following year. Washington imposed economic and political sanctions in 2004, later tightening them. Although the European Commission signed a Partnership Agreement with Syria in 2004, they said it was “difficult to imagine deepening our relations” given the current political circumstances.

Relations with America and Europe remained frosty a few years later, especially after accusations of Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese President Rafiq Hariri. It was as if the country had fallen off the map.

But many Chinese traders disagreed with the West’s assessment. Instead, they have labeled Syria a “cohesive force” (ning jiu li) for the Arab world.

It was their personal view, rather than official Chinese policy. But the expression recognizes the important historical role Syria has played as a terminal point for the Silk Road and as a trading hub for the region. These traders are willing to bet that Syria will continue to play this role despite the economic and political sanctions imposed by America and Europe. They assume that the underlying tides of history are too powerful for the sanctions imposed by a foreign government. Indeed, China itself is rising on much the same historical tide that has buoyed Syria. The number of Chinese traders walking the streets of Damascus continues to grow even as Washington tries to wall the country off from the rest of the world.

Syria’s status as a “cohesive force” is aided by its relative stability. This is no small achievement. The country suffers from the same sectarian divisions between Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, and Kurd that afflict Iraq and Lebanon. The country also shares borders with Iraq to the east, Lebanon to the west, and Israel to the south. An intrusive security apparatus helps keep the peace. And, although the Syrian government has openly defied America and Israel in past decades, it has avoided inciting armed conflict.

This strategy is now paying off handsomely. Chinese traders refer frequently to Syria’s “stability” as a reason to base their operations in the country. How long the country will remain stable is debatable. But at least for now the rise of China is helping to ignite memories of the country’s historical role as a trading hub.

The Adara Free Zone is a poster child for the chance that Syria may choose to take the second, more optimistic, path before it. The industrial park enjoys duty-free status and is a major transshipment hub for the region. Zhou Dongyun has recognized the value of the Adara Free Zone as a commercial hub. Her newly constructed China City is especially popular among visiting Iraq officials. Its two-storey exhibition halls sell everything from office equipment to factory equipment.

Chinese traders are also using the Adara Free Zone to sell to the broader region, in particular Lebanon, as reconstruction efforts after the 2006 war have spurred demand for construction materials. The industrial park is playing a similar role to the open-air squares in the old city of Damascus that once hosted traders arriving along the Silk Road.

Lebanon: Suspected Israeli spy involved in death of Hizbullah official
05.21.09, 09:04 / Israel News

Nasser Nader, one of the main suspects in the Israeli espionage affair in Lebanon, confessed in his investigation to his involvement in the assassination of senior Hizbullah member Ghaleb Awali on July 19, 2004, a Lebanese security source told the as-Safir newspaper.

According to the report, Nader, who was the source said was “one of the most important personas for the Israeli Mossad”, confessed to his involvement in “preparing the grounds for the assassination of Hizbullah officials”. (Roee Nahmias)

Comments (15)


1. alle said:

I’m sorry, but could someone explain Ehsani2′s reaction to the tax decree above? From reading that table, it seems clear that people with high wages pay progressively more than those with low wages. How is that “too capitalist”?

Maybe this is excerpted from a longer comment somewhere? If so, where?

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May 22nd, 2009, 5:16 am

 

2. milli schmidt said:

Hi Ehsani

could you say something about whether tax payment is actually enforced? Is it deducted at source from public sector salaries? does anyone in the private sector actually pay taxes? Is there such a thing as a function inland revenue bureaucracy? I guess a lot of wealthy people still keep there funds abroad – does the state have any sort of control over taxing such funds?

Thank you for your time.

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May 22nd, 2009, 9:37 am

 

3. norman said:

syria might be better off abolishing the Income tax which affect only government employees while employees of the private sector are probably not paying because they are hired under the table, Syria might be better off increasing government employees salaries to match the private sector and have an national sale tax that can be collected from everybody and a tax on second real state homes and investment properties and tax on transfer of assets from parents to children.

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May 22nd, 2009, 11:58 am

 

4. EHSANI2 said:

My comments in the main post are indeed incomplete. Josh had asked me to expand on them but I never had the time even though I promised the Dr. that I would.

I am in the process of doing so now and will offer a more complete background on this important topic shortly.

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May 22nd, 2009, 12:06 pm

 

5. norman said:

The Reporter Online (thereporteronline.com), Serving North Penn, PA

Opinion

Middle East economics influences politics
Friday, May 22, 2009

The visit to Washington of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was free of public acrimony. Some predicted a contentious meeting with President Obama given the particularly hard-line personality of the Israeli leader.

Instead, Netanyahu emphasized support for an independent Palestinian state, though with restrictions, and urged immediate resumption of peace negotiations.

Wisely, President Barack Obama emphasized areas of agreement regarding Iran and other matters, even while the administration continues to pursue a sovereign Palestinian state.

The long-term growth in support among Israeli voters for nationalist conservative parties has clouded prospects for reconciliation with the Palestinian population.

Nonetheless, important broad developments within the Middle East are encouraging moderation, and Netanyahu reflects this changing reality.

Netanyahu’s notable visit follows dramatic support for a Palestinian state by Pope Benedict XVI on a visit to the Middle East last week.

Generally, this pontiff has so far avoided the strong policy declarations of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. This time, however, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church seemed to seek occasions to make news in support of the Palestinian cause.

The pope spoke at Manger Square in Bethlehem, at a Palestinian refugee camp by the Israeli barrier that separates the population, and at the base of Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

He referred to the barrier as a “wall,” the preferred Palestinian term, in contrast to the official Israeli term “fence.”

The pope had been criticized for not including Gaza, the scene of large-scale Israeli military strikes in December and January in reprisal for attacks by militants based there. By the time he departed, such complaints had faded.

Less dramatic developments, beyond the immediate headlines, help explain the current declarations advocating flexibility.

Also, Syria announced important steps to encourage foreign investment. New banking licenses are being issued and the Damascus Securities Exchange will be expanded. There are also moves to enlarge manufacturing and tourism sectors.

Syria is not a major global or even regional economy, but has had steady economic growth at an annual rate of about 5 percent over the past five years.

During the same period, the government has deregulated banking and financial services. State banks no longer have a financial monopoly, and have been joined by a growing number of private banks.

The U.S. maintains economic sanctions against Syria, partly in reaction to support for militant anti-Israel organizations Hezbollah and Hamas.

But commercially, the times are definitely changing, with developments in Syria reflecting wider economic modernization throughout the region, including major oil producing states.

Headlines regarding terrorism and Israel’s incursions in Lebanon also mask the fact that the Middle East has been free of a truly region wide war for more than thirty years.

Earlier decades were marked by such wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.

The Obama administration has important leverage, and here ally Turkey is vital. Ankara controls the Straits of Bosporus, linking the Black Sea and Mediterranean, an ancient trade route of fundamental importance.

Turkey also controls headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which supply Iraq and Syria. Since the 1970s, Middle Eastern states generally have seen domestic water shortfalls as demands have expanded.

Very old time religions, of an extreme sort, too often define the Middle East. Meanwhile, old time geostrategy provides important positive insights.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” E-mail him at acyr@carthage.edu.

URL: http://www.thereporteronline.com/articles/2009/05/22/opinion/srv0000005397389.prt

© 2009 thereporteronline.com, a Journal Register Property

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May 22nd, 2009, 12:18 pm

 

6. Sasa said:

I think the implications of the tax system have been completely misunderstood. It is a very simple progressive system. The low income earners pay a lower PROPORTION of their income (and lower absolute amount) than higher earners.

It is progressive over the range $0 to $435 per month. Above that it becomes flat. So yes, comparing someone who earns $10,000 to someone who earns $500,000 gives the result that they pay the same proportion of tax. But this is the same in every country with progressive tax regimes.

Look at the UK:
$0-$800 per month pays 0% tax
$800-$4166 per month pays 20% tax
Above $4166 per month pays 40% tax

So Syria has a more progressive system because there are more tax bands and because the vast majority of the population will be paying no tax or 5% tax. The rich pay much more (PROPORTIONALLY and ABSOLUTELY).

HERE IS THE POINT:
Ehsani says “the poor pay 20%”. This is untrue. No “poor” person earns $5000 per month. Ehsani is comparing the high earners with the very very very high earners and saying they both pay 20%. Yes, correct. There is no story here!

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May 22nd, 2009, 12:23 pm

 

7. Sasa said:

And as Milli inferred, this is all academic – because the tax problem in Syria is not over rates and bands and proportionality. It is over collection. Taxes aren’t paid.

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May 22nd, 2009, 12:27 pm

 

8. norman said:

DR Landis,

Can you lure DR Dardari to write a summation about the Syrian tax system to individuals and corporation and what is available for tax breaks to investors and especially expat investors.
he might want also answer our questions

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May 22nd, 2009, 1:07 pm

 

9. EHSANI2 said:

sasa,

You are largely correct. I just sent Josh my full comment in full. He will hopefully post it soon as an extention of the main post. I hope my comments are clearer then.

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May 22nd, 2009, 1:19 pm

 

10. alle said:

Ehsani2, thanks for the explanation.

As for services provided, there’s also an army, basic infrastructure, much government building, an airline, television (even if it’s propaganda tv), etc.

What could be done to enforce payment of taxes, that would not rather result in an exortion scheme because of government corruption? Is it not in fact very reasonable to lower taxes to a point where it’s more likely they’ll be paid — socialist or not socialist?

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May 22nd, 2009, 3:38 pm

 

11. EHSANI2 said:

Dear ALLE,

Indeed. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind how Syria’s neighbors use taxes to lure businesses. In spite of the drop in Syrian taxes, those in Lebanon for example remain far below. Jordan is another strong competitor also.

As far as I am concerned and as a person that pays 50% where I reside, low taxes are a music to my ear.

Let me just repeat the fact that I view Syria’s disposable personal income as being too low for the vast majority of its population.

Mr. Dardari and the other reformers need to continue on the path of lowering both direct and indirect taxes. I wish they would also privatize and sell off all or the majority of the 252 businesses that the governement owns. Taxes on both lower and higher income people are ultimately used to plug the hole and wipe out the losses of 248 of these 252 businesses that lose the government coffers billions of Dollars a year.

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May 22nd, 2009, 4:05 pm

 

12. Majhool said:

Ehsani,

I suggest you change the dollar sign in your post to SYP, it has caused some confusion.
I agree with you in most of what you said, to my knowledge, the average hard working professional in the private sector (say an employee in a large consumer product company) makes around SYP 50,000/month. He or she would be taxed only 1% less that tycoons making say 10,000,000/month, let alone the ability of the later to avoid paying taxes all together.

Norman,

The tax system you propose will hurt middle and upper-middle class the most. First of, middle class spend a large portion of their income, deeming most of it to be taxed, whereas billionaires tend to save or reinvest most of it, and hence avoid being taxed all together.

With regard to real estate, the gap between incomes and real-estate prices are rather huge. Taxing people on their homes they own or inherent would be disastrous, people will default or would be forced to sell to avoid it, let alone it would make it impossible to retire in Syria.

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May 22nd, 2009, 9:47 pm

 

13. norman said:

Ehsani,

Thank you , that was very good explanation ,

Majhool,

Are you trying to tell me that the billionaires spend the same amount that the middle class person spends , so if the middle class person makes , let us say 10 to 15 thousands in a month and spends all of it on his household , do you think that it is logical that the billionaire spends only that amount and save everything else , even if he wants to that his wife will not let him , she needs to prove her status , it is well known that the more you make the more you spend , you might not spend everything you make but still spend more than the other guy,

About real state tax , the idea i presented is less harsh than the one we live with in the US ,and if they can afford to have a second house as the first house will not be taxed then they should be willing to pay for that ,by that Syrians will stop parking their money in real state , and more real state will be available for other people to own their own house with the decrease in the price of real state for lack of demand by people who invest in real state ,

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May 23rd, 2009, 2:13 am

 

14. why-discuss said:

Biden visits Lebanon to ensure no foreign interference in the June Lebanese elections!

Biden does Beirut: HERESSSSSSSS JOE!

By Franklin Lamb, Beirut

“It appears that the Biden visit is part of a US bid to supervise the electoral campaign of a Lebanese party, which feels threatened politically, in light of the expected outcome of the legislative vote. We call on all Lebanese, regardless of their political views, to rise up against such meddling that represents a flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty. Biden’s visit is part of U.S. efforts to impose its views on the government that will be set up after the elections. They are tracing red lines for the future government but we will rise up to this.” – Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah, Friday morning 5/22/09 as Joe Biden arrived in Beirut.

How not to win votes for the ‘US team’

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Beirut with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman aboard a U.S. military helicopter at 11:50 am this morning. At 12:14 pm Biden arrived at Baabda Palace and went straight to meet President Michel Suleiman ignoring media questions. Biden was greeted at Beirut’s airport by Hezbollah supporter Fawsi Salloukh, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister and one of the key back channels for US-Hezbollah communications. Biden’s Salloukh meeting is likely the extent of any dialogue between Biden and Hezbollah this trip. Biden’s first words, shouted to some journalists outside the Baabda Presidential Palace were “I am happy to be in Libya�I mean Lebanon this morning!”

If Biden was having a good morning, many Beirutis we not. Many woke up furious as they learned they will be on “lockdown” from 11 am to 6:30 pm for Vice President Joe Biden’s quick visit. It will be the 14th visit by a US official over the past six months to assure the people of Lebanon that the US will not interfere in the June 7 elections. In fact, US interference has now reached a near fever pitch just sixteen days before the voting.

Some Lebanese newspapers sarcastically reported Biden’s visit this morning. Even some pro-US backed March 14 papers like the Daily Star announced: “Biden to voice US determination ‘to assist Lebanon’ VP will ‘reject interference in polls.’

What has upset many in Lebanon’s Capitol this spring morning is that the US Embassy has demanded ‘tight security including the closure of Airport road-Hafez al-Assad avenue, Camille Chamoun avenue, Salim Salam Street, Ahmad Mukhtar Beyhum Street, Fouad Shehab Avenue, Beirut Port entrance, Charles Helou Avenue, Emile Lahoud Avenue, Sayyad Roundabout, Presidential Palace Road, Alfred Nakkache Street, Tahwita Highway, Wafiq Sinno Street, Mina al-Hosn Street, Paris Avenue, General Deguaulle Avenue, Ain al-Tineh, Hrawi bridge, Saeb Salam Boulevard, Wegan Street, Al-Masaref road, Grand Serail Road, Riad al-Solh Square, Mir Bashir Street, Cap center, Al-Risala school bifurcation, Charles Malek Avenue, Kuliyat al-Qiyada wa al-Arkan bifurcation, Shafiq Wazan Street, Port Road, Mir Majid Erslan road, and Fakhreddine Street.” These closures shut down all the main routes and much of Beirut’s commerce. The shutdowns will also prevent many from attending Friday noon prayers in more than 50 mosques.

“This is getting too ridiculous. Why don’t the Americans just run a TV ad telling us what they have repeated so many times? Nobody cares that Biden is coming here except that it affects our daily lives”, Abed, an AUB security guard fumed. “I had plans to go to the Bekaa for the weekend after my shift ends and now I can’t leave until tonight. For sure they won’t get my vote!”

It is hard not to feel empathy with US Ambassador Michel Sison who has had to put together the Vice President’s schedule. And one understands her anguish at being treated as a pesky little sister by some tribal Lebanese male politicians this week who inherited their positions via primogeniture while she earned hers the hard way at school and by competence (presumably her wonderful smile did not hurt).

The reason is that, quite separately, the American ambassador and this observer have been working hard the past few days on similar projects of setting up appointments for a visiting American delegation. We both know only too well the time constraints, last minute schedule changes, frustrations, unexpected ‘pop up’ events which sometimes mess up best laid plans during fast moving back to back briefings.

“My” delegation, which departed this morning for Washington ( Al Hamdulila) after 18 days in the Middle East meeting officials from Egypt to Gaza to Beirut via Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria was from a remarkable advocacy group in Washington DC, the Council for the National Interest (cnionline.org).

“Her” delegation, Vice-President Joe Biden and entourage, arrived this morning after days of schedule preparation for a Condi-Hilary style ‘fly in’.

Some US political junkies are already handicapping the 2012 and 2016 Hilary-Joe Presidential race divining the political consequences of Biden adding hours to Hilary’s 155 minute vist last month. Some see the kernel of a future presidential campaign attack- ad by Joe that Hilary was weak on foreign policy experience on Lebanon and advise their clients about what it all means as they decide which presumed candidate to hitch up to. One imagines that Joe will stay several hours given the ridicule that greeted Hilary and Condi’s ‘quickie’ visits.

Because CNI is well known in the Middle East, and actually sometimes sought after during its twice yearly “political pilgrimages” for dialogue, by both the Majority and the Hezbollah led Opposition, my job is somewhat easier than Michelle Sison’s even though she has a huge staff to assist her. I rely on connected friends to assist. We have many well informed people to choose from and the quality of the discussions are usually excellent with the likes of Hezbollah’s Naim Qassim, Nawaf, Ammar, or Ibrahim Mousawi, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallh, Sheik Abed al Karem Obeid (15 years in Israeli prisons), Michel Aoun, former President Lahoud, and many others from the Opposition who Michele can’t touch since they either remain on the US Political Terrorism list or in Lahoud’s and Aoun’s case, the US unofficial persona non grata list.

We in Beirut try to give CNI a balanced program from the Majority and the Opposition and as red blooded Americans we would never, never, ever forget to include a visit to the American Embassy for a briefing with our Ambassador. That would probably be unpatriotic. Michele did a good job on Wednesday briefing “My” delegation, taking time away from working on “Her’ delegation. All of us appreciated her cooperation and American values of fair play.

So what do we do with Joe?

Michele’s got it tough fixing a worthwhile schedule in Lebanon. During her short tenure here she has had no fewer than a dozen ‘drop ins’. Her problem is much like the one which confronted the late Saudi King’s 7th, 8th and 9th wives on their wedding nights. The Ambassador knows what she is supposed to do but she is not sure how to make it special for Joe.

This is because Michele cannot ‘book’ many of the most intelligent, interesting (except Walid Jumblatt who is sui generis), or many of those likely to have key roles in Lebanon after the coming election. Michele is severely limited since her strict orders from Foggy Bottom preclude dialogue with so many in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.

One example for illustrative purposes. The American delegation (cnionline.org) met with Hizbullah’s brilliant International Relations Officer Ammar Moussawi who served in Parliament for eight years. We were followed the next day by the European Union Ambassador Patrick Laurent (representing 27 European countries). The two sides stressed the need to hold the parliamentary elections in a calm and secure political atmosphere and discussed many other issues which aided mutual understanding and no doubt increased respect between Europe and Hezbollah. Neither Sison nor Biden can have such meetings but are mired in the’ same ol same ol’ “winning team’ cast of characters, visit after visit after visit. According to US Embassy staffers it gets real boring. “We know beforehand what everyone will say, what every question will be, and what every answer will be. Some of us don’t know why we even do this. There is no substance to most of these visits”, according to a good fellow in the Embassy Consular section.

“My” delegation was treated to a rare insight into “Her” delegation’s schedule on Wednesday May 20, 2009 at exactly 7 pm. The CNI members were all sitting with Walid Jumblatt and patting two of his big beautiful orange gentle dogs and a cute puppy on his patio. We formed a small circle of lawn chairs at Walid’s Beirut Clemenseau neighborhood home which he told us he bought 15 years ago.

The phone rings. Being polite Americans we try hard not to eavesdrop but when Walid rolls his eyes (with a facial expression that telegraphs to us: “why do my friends get me involved in these things when all I really want to do is finish reading that article in Foreign Affairs” from which Walid was taking notes when we arrived (British Journalist Robert Fisk confirms that his friend Jumblatt is a voracious reader). Walid speaks English to the person on the other end of the phone so we can’t help over hearing: “Please, no� let’s do it at your place that will be better.” Walid’s mistress, one fellow in the delegation later told me he was thinking at first.

Then we got the idea that whoever was on the line was insisting�even bugging Walid– to host an event of some kind. That’s all we knew at that point. Again, Walid says,” no, it will be better at your place. Please can’t we do it there and there will be fewer political complications”.

Walid closes the phone and continues his discussion of why the “land swapping” proposal of Netanyahu is a scam and should be rejected immediately by the Palestinians. He also critizes some Druze in Palestine who serve as border guards and in the Israeli army. As leader of the Druze in Lebanon he is not happy about his people working for the occupation of Palestine and according to an aide of his considers them as “uncle toms”.

Walid, like all Lebanese politicians who briefed CNI this week, spoke genuinely emotional words about the plight of the 400,000 plus Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. He described the needless destruction at Nahr al Bared Refugee Camp two summers ago, the sub-human conditions in Lebanon’s 12 camps, the essential, full and non-negotiable Right of Return, the worthless Arab ‘leaders’ selling out Nasserism and the Palestinians, ‘the regional plots’ against the Refugees and his own father’s 25 year effort to end Lebanon’s Confessional system.

Half a million imported workers but no jobs for Palestinians born in Lebanon

Walid also tried to answer one guests questions about why Lebanon brings in more than half a million foreign workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Syria, Egypt and other countries for jobs most Lebanese do not want (including underage sex workers from Russia and Eastern Europe and Asia who are given special considerations by Lebanese General Security) . Lebanon gives them all civil rights, work permits, social security, educational opportunities but continues to deny any of these same basic civil rights to Palestinian Refugees. By Lebanese law.

We were a bit rough on Walid but he can take it. Walid demurs and acknowledges it’s a tough question to answer. Finally he does one of his signature shoulder shrugs, leans forward in his chair, turns up his palms, drops his jaw and opens wide his big Druze eyes.

When he receives follow up questions and we zero in and squeeze him at bit more with statistics and enumeration of some of the heinous Lebanese laws he appears surprised that we know a little about the subject. Still, he offers no convincing answer other than “local Lebanese sensitiveness”. When we continue to press him Walid blurted out the probable truth: “No confessional leaders like the Palestinians in Lebanon.”

“Hi Walid, it’s your little sister again”

The phone rings again. Walid holds his small mobile phone in his right hand and extends his arm and moves his hand back and forward until he can focus on the number of the caller. He grimaces before answering and if this observer read his lips correctly he mouthed a four letter expletive. “No, its not a good idea Michele. I don’t want to do this. Better to meet at your place” he repeats ‘your place’ , apparently not wanting to identify what ‘your place’ meant on his no doubt multi tapped phone line.

Walid hangs up.

Clearly exasperated he explains to his guests, “That was your ambassador wanting me to fix a meeting with Biden. They should do it at your Embassy!” He explains how Biden’s visit to Lebanon was all the brain child of pro US Deputy Nayla Moawad (she has given up her safe seat to her son Michel as a birthday present for the June election) to have Biden come to Lebanon. Walid clearly communicates that he would rather not have any part of the latest ‘drop in’ (as events turned out Walid rejected the charms of Michele who he call’s ‘little sister’ and Nayla Moawad will have to host Joe at her home since the visit was her bright idea in the first place).

Has Joe dumped Zionism?

Quite by chance, on “my” delegation was Vice President’s Biden’s Ophthalmologist from Wilmington, Deleware, a nice fellow with a dynamite Palestinian wife named “Mike”. (no, no, she’s a real and beautiful woman. “Mike” is a nickname for her real Arabic name which she never bothered to mention) Joe’s eye doctor explained to Walid that Biden had changed from his “I’am a Zionist” campaign assurances to AIPAC.

“Well”, Walid replies skeptically, “I have met with Biden before. Why is he coming and can your government not understands that such visits are not helpful to the Majority but only help Hezbollah?”

No sooner than this observer returned to his apartment exhausted from three days of back to back briefings than the phone rang. It was from Issam, a friend and neighbor of Jumblatt’s from Ain Kani in the Chouf. Issam said Walid enjoyed the CNI visit and he invited me to brunch on Sunday and a tour of the Mukhtara area in the Chouf. I took the opportunity while on the phone to confirm what I thought Walid meant about Biden coming to Lebanon and his apparent preference that he not show up. Issam did confirm Walid’s thinking which in fact in common knowledge in Lebanon, as follows:

Michele is increasingly confined to the Embassy as is her staff. One of the reasons is all these US officials coming to Lebanon to explain that the US is not interfering in their June 7 election whereas every 8 year old here knows the opposite is true. Lebanese are very sophisticated politically and increasingly feel they are being ‘played’ Recently, every time it is announced that the American Ambassador is making a stop somewhere outside Hariri areas the likelihood increases that Michele will be met with Lebanese shaking their shoes at her a la the Iraqi journalist and Bush. This happened last week in South Lebanon and Michele was forced again to cancel a visit.

To ruin her day more, yesterday morning Michele was accused by Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad of playing a key role in the formation of March 14 coalition’s electoral tickets. Since every communication to and from the US Embassy is monitored by Hezbollah, the Embassy did not reply to media inquires, while technicians from Washington continue (since May 2008) to attempt to ‘fix the Embassy bugging problem’.

According to Hezbollah’s Raad: “The majority team has trouble in forming its lists. It cannot form them unless U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison interferes in the process of choosing” candidates, he told a gathering in Nabatiyeh on Thursday May 21. “This is what is happening in Kesrouan, Beirut 1, Zahle, Jbeil and what happened in Metn,” he said.

Issam continued to explain that the Lebanese are no longer much impressed with US officials coming and reciting, sometimes word for word, the pro-Israel, anti-Resistance mantra of ‘free and independent “democratic Lebanon, without armed militias et cetera.” If Hezbollah wins the election one reason will be these “demeaning visits”, Issam concludes.

It’s not about the Bomb

“The Bush administration fought the battle of capabilities with Iran and lost. No countries but Israel and US puppets are terribly worried about Iran getting a nuclear device. In fact probably a majority in the Middle East would welcome an Iranian nuclear deterrent to Israel’s serial aggressions” Issam stated.

Walid Jumblatt explained to CNI, “When, not if, Iran acquires a nuclear bomb, Iran won’t use it. Only the Americans did that during World War II”.

Again, Issam elaborated: “The reason Israel is trying to scare the American public is to draw the focus away from Israeli crimes in Gaza and Occupied Palestine. What Israel knows is that once it is stalemated by Iran a whole world of anti-Zionists and human rights supporters will rise up and join the growing rejection of Apartheid Israel. Many will join the Resistance. Not just in Palestine but worldwide. Including in America where it may be fierce and Zionism will likely fracture and crumble and some of the more rabid Zionists may be asked to declare, like Israeli Foreign Minister Liberman did to Arabs in Israel, where their loyalties really are. We believe here that the American public lives in fear that Zionists will accuse them of anti-Semitism and try to ruin their lives if they speak their real feelings and that support for Israel, while still wide in America is getting very thin. We appreciate regular American delegations coming here because we get to see real American and they are good decent people. From Lebanon it appears that pressure is building inside America to confront the Israel lobby even though 76 US Senators signed a pro-Israel, anti-Iran letter this week to your President. It this true from your understanding? Will the American people finally put America first?”

Meanwhile, after meeting with Defense Minister Murr to photo-op some more military equipment for the Lebanese army, ‘smokin Joe’ will blast ‘up and outa’ Lebanon en route to Washington.

The Levant’s ‘fateful’ election: 16 days and counting. It’s getting interesting here in Lebanon. May the best team win.

About the author: Franklin Lamb works with the Sabra-Shatila Foundation in Beirut. He is reachable at fplamb@sabra-shatila.org.

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May 23rd, 2009, 2:28 am

 

15. t.desce said:

Interesting quote from Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s Nabatiyeh speech yesterday:

“My last point on this topic is that not only those spies and collaborators gather information; some of them have field missions to execute. One of them had 20 kilograms of TNT explosives at his home, for what purpose? This is an important question that needs an answer. There are agents, like Mahmoud Rafea, who confessed to have delivered bags with explosives. Other collaborators have confessed to have carried out field reconnaissance missions. Others have facilitated the entrance and exit of Israelis after accomplishing their missions. This is what is meant by executive agents. The door must be opened wide, and those who make pre-judgments and make ready-made positions must learn that this Israeli path should be scrutinized so as to reach someplace where we would find information about lots of crimes, particularly in 2005 onwards. Some of those collaborators had played significant roles in stirring sectarian sedition while others have confessed to their roles in stirring sedition between Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. However, it is clear today that the skirmishes in some areas which developed into battles were Israeli made.”

BTW, I think that Naharnet and the Daily Star got the quote wrong. In any case, this is more accurate.

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May 23rd, 2009, 8:39 am

 

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