Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, June 24th, 2009
President Obama has decided to send an ambassador to Syria. He is doing the right thing. Indeed, relations with Syria should have been normalized long ago as Baker and Hamilton advised. The Bush administration’s policy of conquering Iraq while insisting that it’s neighbors would be next in line for regime-change was unsound and born of arrogance. Washington gave Syria and Iran little choice but to fan the flames of the Iraq insurgency. It didn’t have to be. Both countries could have been reassured about US plans in Iraq had Washington limited its objectives. There was no reason for either country not to want the end of Saddam’s rule. After all, Saddam had done so much to make the lives of Syrians and Iranians miserable over the years.
On an immediate level, the announcement to return an ambassador is tied to Syria’s agreement on Iraq security and intelligence sharing. Twice Secretary of State Rice met with her Syrian counterparts and tried to jumpstart an agreement on Iraq. At Sharm al-Shaykh in May 2007, she had proposed sending two generals to Damascus, but refused to normalize relations with Syria or send an ambassador, which ultimately scotched attempts to improve US-Syrian cooperation under the last administration. The end result of Bush’s refusal to compromise with Syria was the cross-border raid to kill Iraqi resistance facilitators. Eight Syrians were murdered, Syria claims, as collateral damage during the Abu Kamal raid that took place only weeks before the presidential elections. General Petraeus had sought to avoid such bloodshed by going to Damascus himself in order to broker a political deal that might have induced the Syrians arrest the facilitators when Americans asked them to. V.P. Cheney forbade any attempt to broker such a deal, I was told by good sources in the anti-terrorism community.
Syria has worked hard to improve relations with Washington. It scrupulously kept out of the Lebanon election process, even as the US sent one senior statesman after another to warn Lebanese not to vote for enemies of the US and as Saudi money was lavishly spent on getting pro-March 14 Lebanese to fly home to vote. Syrian authorities have entertained a series of military envoys to work out guidelines on Iraq border issues; and they have pushed the Palestinians to form a government of national union in order to pave the way for US engagement with Gazans.
Obama Will Send Envoy to Syria, Officials Say
By MARK LANDLER
Published: June 24, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Obama has decided to send an ambassador to Syria after a four-year hiatus, two senior administration officials said on Tuesday evening, in a sign of the deepening engagement between the Obama administration and the Syrian government.
The State Department informed Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, of the decision on Tuesday, said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been announced. Mr. Obama has not yet chosen a person for the post, he said.
The administration’s decision was first reported on CNN’s Web site. The State Department’s spokesman, Ian C. Kelly, declined to comment on the report, but other officials said it was a logical step in Mr. Obama’s pursuit of normal relations with Syria.
“It’s a reflection of Syria being a pivotal country in terms of achieving a comprehensive peace in the region,” one senior official said. “There is a lot of work to do in the region for which Syria can play a role. For that, it helps to have a fully staffed embassy.”
The State Department has twice dispatched Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary for the Near East, and Daniel Shapiro, a National Security Council official, to Damascus for exploratory meetings.
Two weeks ago, the administration’s special envoy for the Middle East, George J. Mitchell, met with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, for what Mr. Mitchell later said were “serious and productive discussions.”
Just before Mr. Mitchell’s visit, an American military delegation visited Damascus for talks about how Syria could contribute to the stabilization of its neighbor Iraq. American officials are worried about foreign insurgents flowing into Iraq from Syria.
The Bush administration withdrew the ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon. Washington suspects Syria of being involved in the attack, which it denies.
Since then, a chargé d’affaires has been the highest-ranking American diplomat in Damascus. The new ambassador would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
And as is customary, the Syrians could register objections to a candidate.
“The Lebanese daily Al-Diyar has reports that Prince ‘Abd Al-’Aziz, the son of the Saudi king, met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus on June 20, 2009, in preparation for a meeting between Assad and the king.
The daily also reports that Saudi Information Minister ‘Abd Al-Aziz Al-Khoja has likewise visited Syria for a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Mushen Bilal. According to the daily, the ongoing rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia may affect the political atmosphere in Lebanon and the establishment of its new government.
Assad no longer stands in his father’s shadow
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz
There are large billboards on the road leading to Damascus from the Jordanian border. Once they featured portraits of former Syrian president Hafez Assad. Even after his death, he continued to exist on the billboards, alongside his two sons, Basil (who died before him) and Bashar, who was appointed president in his place. Today Bashar alone is on the billboards. The new “lion of Damascus” no longer stands in anyone’s shadow.
This month marks the ninth anniversary of Hafez Assad’s death. Next month will mark nine years of Bashar’s tenure. A different Syria and a different Assad. The young man (34 years old at the time) who lacked confidence and experience has become an experienced president with tested ability to overcome crises and even to be strengthened by them. The Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo recently awarded him the title of “the most popular leader” in the Middle East.
Prof. David Lesch, a Middle Eastern scholar at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and the author of “The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria,” visited here last week. At the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University he related an incident he witnessed at the Damascus Opera House (which is named after Bashar’s father). At the end of the performance Bashar and his wife Asma held a reception. They stood in the large square outside, and the audience leaving the hall found itself facing the presidential couple. To help the audience overcome their embarrassment, the ushers took action and simply pushed those present toward the couple. A handshake, a smile, a glance, a short conversation. It’s important for their image.
Lesch sees this incident as an example of the way in which Bashar Assad establishes his rule in Damascus. No longer is there the distance his father favored, no more residence in the military ivory tower. The president and his wife are said to go out, by private car, to eat in a restaurant or a cafe. That did, in fact, happen once or twice, far less often than the Syrians tend to talk about.
In an interview with Haaretz Lesch said Assad had “clearly evolved as a leader. When I first met with him in 2004, he was still a bit unsure. He was not totally in control domestically.”
At the time, said Lesch, Assad had limited knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict and lacked basic information about U.S. foreign policy. Meetings with him were held in the presence of advisers and interpreters, who made sure he would not blurt out anything stupid. Now during meetings with interviewers, Assad sits by himself, relaxed.
The turning point that Lesch saw was the election of 2007, when he was “re-elected’ in a referendum. The word “elected” does not quite fit the procedure in which the citizens of Syria can say “yes” or “no” to the continued tenure of the president. To ensure the outcome, the answer is written in sight of everyone in the room where the ballot box is located.
In those days Assad was recovering from two major crises: the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the Second Lebanon War. Hariri’s murder forced the Syrians to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. A Syrian friend of Lesch told him: “We lost Beirut at the time, but we gained Damascus,” because as a result of the crisis, Assad strengthened his hold in the corridors of power and ousted those who did not accept his policy. A year later, in 2006, Syria turned out to be one of the big winners of the Second Lebanon War. Assad was euphoric. His tough policy, his opposition to the American occupation in Iraq and the price he had paid for that in international isolation – all increased his popularity. In Damascus, people took to the city squares and cheered their president.
The 2007 elections were accompanied by demonstrations of support organized by the regime, and yet, said Lesch, they contained a degree of authenticity. Assad went out on the balcony of the modest house that serves as the presidential residence, pointed to families who were standing in the street and cheering him and hosted them for a few minutes on his balcony.
“I met with him just after he was elected,” said Lesch, “and for the first time I really saw in him this level of self-satisfaction that I hadn’t seen before. He has always been very modest and humble, self-deprecating even. This time he was … in a cathartic expression of gratification that the people really liked him.”
The meetings with Assad also provided Lesch with a rare glimpse into the manner in which the regime is run. “It is very interesting to see him work around the system,” said Lesch. Assad once said to him, for example: “You know, I’ve signed 1,000 decrees, only four were implemented. Many times I have to work around the system to get anything done.”
Assad is aware of the corruption and the opposition to change,” and according to Lesch “it’s very frustrating for him over the years to get any kind of serious reform.” He knows that changes that go too far are liable to lose him the support of those who benefit from the corruption and from the existing situation. Lesch said that once, in a conversation about a project in which he is involved in Syria, “Bashar leaned over to me and said, ‘How can we do this? We need to implement this. How do we get around these groups?’”
Assad is leading a policy of rapprochement with Israel, and Lesch said that “since it was the first time [he was] doing this, he cannot afford to fail. He has made his decision and he has an array of people around him who agree with him in terms of the idea of the negotiations with Israel. This is still a strategic choice. But there are elements who do not agree with this. This indicates to me that Bashar feels he has one shot at this, and he’d better get it right or he’ll be forced to retrench from this foreign policy path he’d like to follow.”
That’s why, said Lesch, the president will agree to direct talks with Israel only if there is a good chance they will succeed.
Lesch described the atmosphere in Damascus as “sour.” U.S. President Barack Obama did not mention Syria in his policy speech in Cairo. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked only to visit Damascus. In the wake of the speech, the Syrian press agency issued an official statement to the effect that Syria saw it as proof of “an absence of genuine Israeli desire to make peace in the region.”
The West is still suspicious of the Syrian regime. The transfer of weapons to Hezbollah continues, and Hamas receives refuge in Damascus. Iran is a strategic ally. Is Bashar secretly promoting a nuclear program? Bashar denies it, Lesch doesn’t know.
He quotes Assad as saying “that would be monumentally stupid for the Syrians to do, to develop a nuclear capability … history is full of regimes who made monumentally stupid decisions.”
When it comes to internal Syrian affairs Assad projects greater confidence. He is not paying a price for imprisoning human rights activists, there is no real threat to his regime and the opposition in exile is of no real importance. In the area of foreign relations he has not succeeded in totally breaking out of the isolation imposed on him years ago. He just went with his wife to the Republic of Georgia and earlier visited Qatar and France. His schedule is fuller than in the past, and he entertains many diplomats and foreign ministers who come to Damascus. But that is not enough. Assad is disturbed mainly by the continued coldness of the U.S. administration.
“…Shimon Shiffer reports in Yediot Acharonoth: In messages relayed in the last few days to Ankara by figures close to Netanyahu it was said: “Israel is willing to renew the talks with the Syrians.” However, it was made clear that the Netanyahu government would not withdraw from the Golan Heights and would not reply in the affirmative to the Syrian demand to begin the talks from the point they were left off by the Olmert government.
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed on Saturday efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We agree with Syria that the dialogue should succeed,” Abbas’s aide Nabil Abu Rdainah told reporters.
He was referring to Egyptian mediation between Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas, which is supported by Syria and Iran. Egypt has set July 7 as a deadline to find a solution for divisions between the two groups.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Syria, cancelled a speech he was due to make later on Saturday shortly after Abbas met Assad. No explanation was given.
Abbas’s visit to Syria is the second since May. His aides said Abbas would not be meeting any Palestinian factions in Syria before leaving for Saudi Arabia for talks with King Abdullah on Sunday.
Simon Halabi’s Companies Default on $1.9 Billion Debt
2009-06-19, By Chris Bourke
June 19 (Bloomberg) — Billionaire investor Simon Halabi’s real estate companies defaulted on 1.15 billion pounds ($1.9 billion) of bonds backed by nine London office buildings as the recession cut the value of the properties by about 50 percent. Halabi started as a director of real estate investment company Property Trust in the 1980s. The Syrian-born investor is worth about $4 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He bought health chain Esporta for around 460 million pounds in 2006, using 330 million pounds of debt from Societe Generale, according to Eurohypo AG research.
The doors have been opened to the Afamia Rotana Resort, Latakia. Located on a sandy peninsula, two kilometres from Latakia city centre, the new five-star resort brings a new level of comfort and a host of leisure activities to the city.
U.S. Navy Fleet’s Mideast Home Is Facing Rise in Sectarian Strife
By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV, in WSJ
MADINAT HAMAD, Bahrain — On a recent evening, Issa al Jibb climbed the roof of his home and started hurling Molotov cocktails into the adjoining property of the Rawi clan. By the time Bahraini police shot him down with a rubber bullet, Mr. Jibb had managed to burn three cars and part of the building, and inflicted serious burns on two Rawi teenagers.
This was no ordinary feud among neighbors. Mr. Jibb, 46 years old, is a native of this small Persian Gulf kingdom. The Rawis are originally from Syria, were recruited along with thousands of other Arabs and Pakistanis to serve in Bahrain’s security forces and eventually rewarded with Bahraini citizenship for their loyalty to the crown.
Hostility between these two communities is on the rise, with several other clashes, car torchings and beatings reported in recent months. “Bahrainis think that we just don’t belong, that we’re aliens to this area and to this state,” says a Syrian-born army officer who lives nearby.
Once hailed for its democratic reforms, Bahrain — a strategic island-state that serves as headquarters of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet — is increasingly rocked by sectarian and ethnic strife. Though the majority of Bahrain’s 530,000 citizens are Shiites, power remains in the hands of a Sunni royal family, the only such minority regime in the Arab world since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Suspecting its Shiite citizens of loyalty to nearby Iran, the island’s former master, Bahrain’s royal family has long relied on Sunni mercenaries from countries such as Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan to staff Bahrain’s army, police and security service.
Earlier this decade, as Washington pushed for democratization in the region, Bahrain’s King Hamad freed political prisoners and established an elected parliament with limited powers. However, opposition leaders and some independent analysts charge, a parallel program began at the same time, largely ignored by Western nations that depend on Bahrain’s valuable naval facilities. The regime, they say, has sharply accelerated its policy of naturalizing Sunni mercenaries, aiming to inflate the size of the Sunni electorate — and to defuse Iran’s growing influence.
“There seems to be a clear political strategy to alter the country’s demographic balance in order to counter the Shiite voting power,” says Toby C. Jones, professor of Middle East studies at Rutgers University and a former Bahrain-based analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. “This naturalization stuff is a time bomb.”
Bahraini officials deny any such policy exists, and insist there is no discrimination against the country’s Shiites. According to Bahrain’s interior minister, Sheik Rashid bin Abdullah al Khalifa, only about 7,000 people were naturalized in the past five years. Opposition politicians, however, calculate the naturalization’s true pace at some 10,000 people a year, based on voter registration statistics — a big number in such a small country.
People picked for this naturalization “aren’t just Sunnis,” but religious fundamentalists “who share the hatred of the Shiites,” asserts Hassan Mushaima, leader of Bahrain’s Haq Shiite movement who was imprisoned for three months this year for his role in violent street protests.
Not just Bahraini Shiites oppose the naturalization. Initially, the island’s Sunnis welcomed fellow Sunni newcomers, says Ebrahim Sharif Alsayed, secretary- general of the Waad secularist movement and a Sunni himself. “But today, most Sunnis are strongly against the naturalization,” he says. “It’s not about balancing the Shiites anymore — it’s about protecting the indigenous Sunni population from being invaded by foreigners.”
Mr. Jibb, the Bahraini who threw Molotov cocktails into his neighbors’ home in Madinat Hamad last month, is a Sunni, too. The conflict began in December, when Mr. Jibb witnessed the beating of a Bahraini neighbor by the Rawis and other naturalized Syrians, according to his sister Leila. “The Syrians, they’re like a gang trying to control the whole area, bullying the whole street just to show who’s the boss,” she says.
A few days later, the Rawis attacked Mr. Jibb with a hammer blow on the head, prompting a hospitalization, she says. Members of the Rawi household, headed by retired Bahraini army sergeant Freih al Rawi, and comprising some 40 people, deny they instigated the clash. “We know; there’s bad feeling for foreign people here,” says one of Mr. Rawi’s sons, an army officer.
The night of May 29, Ms. Jibb says, her brother — who suffered psychiatric problems after the December hammer blow to the head — found himself the target of taunts by the Rawis again, and simply “lost his mind,” unleashing the volley of Molotov cocktails. Ms. Jibb has since fled her house, fearing revenge from the Syrian-born neighbors.
“How can it be?” she wondered indignantly. “I, a pure Bahraini lady, am now homeless in my own country!”
Which Iran would Israel bomb?
Zvi Bar’el, in Haaretz, ( thanks to “friday-lunch-club”)
“… Israel is now gaining a more intimate, accurate familiarity with the Iranian public. The demonstrations have made quite clear that there is not one Iran or even two, but rather a number of Irans. There is the Iran that belongs to those who screamed, “Death to America and to Israel,” and there is the Iran that screams, “Down with the dictator.”….
It is still too early to predict how the demonstrators will act and in what fashion the Revolutionary Guards will respond, but this past week’s events will leave a historic mark in post-revolutionary Iran. It is a mark that should also be seared into the minds of the West in general, and the United States and Israel in particular. All in all, 30 years have passed since the Khomeini revolution, and the Iranian public is now rebelling against the system. True, this constituency has twice elected a reformist president who disappointed, and this time it does not appear that it is ready to give up, at least not easily. But hundreds of thousands of demonstrators did not pour into the streets due to American intervention or threats from Israel. They want a better Iran for themselves, not for Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu. They will be the ones to determine what qualifies as a better Iran.
This is the crux of the confusion that we have stumbled upon. The grand enemy that was neatly packaged into a nuclear, Shi’ite-religious container has come apart at the seams. On the one hand, it threatens, while on the other hand it demonstrates for democracy. On one street, it raises a fist against America, and in another alley, streams of protesters march for human rights. For goodness’ sake, who is left to bomb? Until one week ago, the path was well-lit.
An Israeli decision to strike depends on American policy, which depends on the outcome of the dialogue that President Obama seeks to begin with Iran. And, as military jargon so succinctly teaches us, the prescribed plan of action can be interrupted by unforeseen events. This is a segment of the Iranian population that is beginning to give rise to new questions. If there is a chance to change the system of rule – perhaps not now, but in the next Iranian election in four years – if there is a chance that Obama will gain greater leverage because the Iranian leader understands that he must compromise with his people, this will be a route that must be tried anew.
All the more so when one gets the sneaky suspicion that the military challenge from a nuclear Iran does not pose as menacing a threat as we were warned to believe. If the head of the Mossad pushes the threat back to 2014, and since we place trust in our defense leaders whether they say the threat will be realized in another year or within a few months, and if the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency says it is impossible to prevent a state from acquiring know-how in the field of nuclear technology, there is no alternative but to explore the path that will weaken the motivation to use a nuclear weapon. And that is to speak with Iran through the Iranians.”
This sprawling novel of life and death in Damascus, by German-Syrian writer Rafik Schami, is a 1001 Nights of the mid-20th century. It begins with a straightforward murder mystery. In 1969, the body of a Muslim army officer is discovered in a basket …
Iraq war inquiry could reveal secrets, lies and the rush to war
Gaby Hinsliff, Paul Harris and Jamie Doward
The Observer, Sunday 21 June 2009
When Tony Blair told the Commons that he hoped conflict with Iraq could be averted, he already knew the White House had picked 1,500 targets for its bombers. Gaby Hinsliff, Paul Harris and Jamie Doward report on the gaps between what the public were told and what politicians were discussing in private, as the government prepares for a closed inquiry
The drumbeats of war were growing louder, and opposition to them louder still. But on that Monday afternoon six years ago, just off a plane from a critical Washington summit, Tony Blair insisted an invasion of Iraq was still not inevitable. “No one wants conflict… Even now, I hope that conflict with Iraq can be avoided,” he told the House of Commons on 3 February 2003. “Even now, I hope that Saddam can come to his senses, co-operate fully and disarm peacefully, as the UN has demanded.” Nonetheless, he admitted, if Saddam rejected that route, “he must be disarmed by force”. What the MPs listening intently to him did not know, however, was that the decision had already been made….