Ambassador Ford Hearings; Petraeus's Testimony; Hof in Damascus to Discuss Peace - Syria Comment

Ambassador Ford Hearings; Petraeus’s Testimony; Hof in Damascus to Discuss Peace

“Ford’s Manifesto”
An-Nahar [Translation thanks to mideastwire.com]
By Rajeh Khoury, March 17, 2010

On March 17, the pro-parliamentary majority An-Nahar carried the following opinion piece by Rajeh Khoury: “Did the Administration of President Barrack Obama ever hear of what was known as “secret diplomacy” in the history of the relations between countries? It is apparent and certain that the Administration does not have the sufficient knowledge about the way to deal with some countries of the Middle East especially with Syria where the relations have deteriorated over the past five years. When one reads the talk of American Ambassador Robert Ford who will arrive to Damascus, one discovers immediately that, during his testimony in front of the committee of external affairs in the Congress, he has placed sticks in the wheels of his delicate and sensitive task, which is supposed to adjust things with President Bashar al-Assad.

“It was completely obvious that Ford carries with him to Syria a series of demands and conditions that implicitly summarize a desire to submit Damascus to the American conditions that have been repeated constantly in the past years only to be faced with a rejection and stiffness on the part of the Syrian regime. The American ambassador cannot [possibly] confine the talk about an honest and direct dialogue that he wants to have with Damascus by issuing a series of conditions that include a sort of lightness vis-à-vis Syria by repeatedly saying that Syria must step away from Iran and halt its support for Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon, and the Hamas Movement in the Gaza district, in addition to preventing the infiltration of terrorist elements into Iraq. If the opening up to Syria does not take into consideration Al-Assad’s statement that “he who wants us must accept us the way we are,” then Ford will fail in knocking on Damascus’s gates.

“…It was quite interesting what the American ambassador said during his testimony that “we must see if the Syrians are genuinely interested in negotiating a peace treaty with Israel,” because there is a need for him [Ford] to see if the Israelis are genuinely interested in any peaceful settlement in the region… And we do not know what Ford means when he promises the Congress that he will communicate with Damascus through “more than governmental circles” in order to spread the American message and to get in touch with the Syrian youth, thus implying that there is a gap in the system in Syria and that the Syrian youth will move internally. This will not be an easy thing as the Syrian regime knows very well how to “care” for its interests and relations with its citizens…

“The American Administration could have adopted what was always known as the secret diplomacy in a way that allows the new ambassador to say what he wants to the officials in Damascus when he meets with them, instead of having his testimony at the Congress published as a manifesto of conditions that will definitely not facilitate his mission with Bashar al-Assad…” – An-Nahar, Lebanon

ANALYSIS-Syria’s link to Hezbollah clouds honeymoon with US
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis, 18 Mar 2010

* Syria balances regional ties and US relationship
* US says Damascus must stop backing Hezbollah
* Opening to Turkey crucial to Syrian strategy

DAMASCUS, March 18 (Reuters) – Emboldened by its strong ties with Iran and Turkey, Syria is ignoring U.S. demands that it stop backing Hezbollah, despite the risk that this will spoil its rapprochement with Washington and raise regional tensions.

Syria’s support for the armed Lebanese Shi’ite movement is at odds with its stated aims of improving relations with the United States and resuming peace negotiations with Hezbollah’s arch-foe Israel, diplomats and political analysts said.

Damascus has also sought to reinforce its alliance with Iran and expand links with Turkey, which hosted indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel until they broke down in 2008.

A stronger Hezbollah and increased regional clout could bolster Syria’s hand in any resumed negotiations with Israel, several analysts said.

President Bashar al-Assad told the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet last month that peace with Israel could be signed within six months “if things moved in the right direction”.

Yet a few days earlier, the 44-year-old leader had welcomed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus and proposed that Turkey, Syria and Iran form an Islamic bloc to counter Israeli and U.S. influence.

“You have to hand it to the Syrians. One day they host Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad and the next day they talk about their readiness for peace with Israel,” one diplomat in the Syrian capital said.

“They cannot, however, sustain this indefinitely. The United States may decide to end the rapprochement and the hype about a regional war could turn into a reality,” the diplomat added.

SHADOW OF 2006 WAR

Syria says it lends Hezbollah only political support and denies U.S. and Israeli accusations that it has helped the group re-arm since its 2006 war with Israel in Lebanon.

Damascus says Hezbollah cannot be expected to disarm as long as Israel continues to occupy Shebaa Farms, a tiny, well-watered slice of land that Syria and Lebanon say is Lebanese territory.

Syrian commentator Ayman Abdel Nour said Israel’s failure to defeat Hezbollah in 2006 had made Syria more immune to Israeli threats, and that Syria would not sacrifice the guerrilla movement for the sake of better ties with the United States.

Nour said Syria’s blossoming economic opening to its former adversary Turkey could help offset economic damage from U.S. sanctions that were imposed in 2004 partly because of Syrian support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group.

“The political reading of the regime is that Syria’s continuity is tied to Middle East forces, mainly Turkey and Iran. Washington is no longer considered fearsome,” Nour said.

“Hafez al-Assad used to say that a good relationship with the United States was vital but coming too close to America was also harmful,” he added, referring to the late Syrian leader.

The younger Assad may be walking a tightrope, however. Talk of war in the Middle East has revived in recent months as Iran pursues a nuclear programme viewed by Israel as its deadliest threat. Tehran says its nuclear work is purely peaceful.

Washington has said its rapprochement with Damascus is not open-ended and that it wants to see real Syrian policy changes.

U.S. President Barack Obama opened channels after taking office 14 months ago, but also renewed sanctions. In February he named an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year absence.

Robert Ford, the ambassador-designate, told the Senate Foreign Relations committee at his confirmation hearing on March 16 that a regional war could erupt if Syria did not stop what he termed its supply of long-range weapons to Hezbollah.

“If Hezbollah has rockets that can hit farther into Israel, it complicates every one’s calculations and raises the risk of a miscalculation and the risk of conflict,” Ford said.

“We do not see how it is in Syria’s interest for new fighting to break out in Lebanon. Fighting that could escalate and even drag in Syria itself,” he added.

Ford said U.S. sanctions would not be lifted as long as Syria backed Hezbollah, but acknowledged that Damascus had helped cut the flow of foreign fighters across its territory into Iraq, a major U.S. demand for the last five years.

Another diplomat in Damascus said U.S. officials had made it clear during their meetings with their Syrian counterparts that the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons was “a ticking bomb”.

“The Israelis did not want to broaden the war in 2006,” he said. “Their calculations now may be different with Hezbollah possibly strong enough to hit Tel Aviv.”

Ford told lawmakers

Opponents of the appointment complained in a March 5 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “engagement for engagement’s sake is counterproductive” when dealing with states such as Syria. Ford said, however, that direct access to the Syrian government could help undermine Syria’s traditional role as a spoiler.

Syria has been on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for more than 30 years. Its ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, meanwhile, are problematic for Washington. Ford said it was vital to convince Syria that its troubled partnerships weren’t serving the interest of peace. “I do not think that the Syrians will change their policies quickly,” he said. “Finding avenues of cooperation with Syria will be a step-by-step process that will require patience and steady commitment to our principles.”

Obama Choice for Syria Envoy Seeks ‘Straight Talk’
March 16, 2010, Businessweek
By Peter S. Green

March 16 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. needs to deliver “straight talk” to the Syrian leadership on stabilizing Iraq and cutting links to Hezbollah in Lebanon, President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Damascus said today.

“Bad news just doesn’t flow upwards over there,” Robert Ford, a career diplomat, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing as he explained why the U.S. wants to send an ambassador for the first time in five years.

Ford said Syria should shut down remaining foreign fighter networks feeding militants into Iraq and realize that Iraq has a sustainable, constitutional government that won’t be overthrown.  “If confirmed, unfiltered straight talk with the Syrian government will be my mission priority,” he said.

Ford said he would tell Syria it must cooperate with international nuclear inspectors and that U.S. sanctions won’t be dropped unless Syria stops supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and arming it with rockets and other weapons used against Israel. “I am under no illusions as to how big a challenge this will be,” Ford told lawmakers….

“If we are to succeed in stabilizing the region, we must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah share Syria’s long-term strategic interest in a comprehensive Middle East peace,” Ford said. “Indeed, we must see whether the Syrians are truly interested in negotiating that peace agreement with Israel.”

Senior U.S. diplomat in Syria in effort to restart peace talks
By DPA

Senior United States diplomat Fredric Hof on Thursday met with Syrian officials in Damascus to discuss “a true and lasting peace in the region,” an official familiar with the talks said.

Washington and the European Union have frequently said they seek a “comprehensive peace” in the region, including between Israel and Syria. Syria is a close ally of Iran, and hosts political leaders of hard-line Palestinian factions, including Hamas, in Damascus.

Hof, a deputy to U.S. President Barack Obama’s Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, would aim to create “a true and lasting peace in the region, especially following the parliamentary elections in Iraq that took place earlier this month,” an official close to the talks told the German Press Agency DPA, speaking on condition of anonymity. A delegation of “various specialists” joined Hof for the discussions with Syrian diplomats, the official said…..

Peace With Current Israeli Govt “Impossible”-Syrian Pres
2010-03-18

DAMASCUS (AFP)–Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that peace in the Middle East was “impossible” because of the actions of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The establishment of peace in the Middle East is impossible because of the absence of an Israeli partner,” Assad told reporters after talks with visiting Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Israel’s pursuit of settlement construction and its occupation of Arab territory conquered in 1967 were the “real obstacle” to peace and pushed the region toward “more wars and tension,” Assad said.

He said Syria “seriously wants to establish a just and comprehensive peace…through Turkish-sponsored indirect negotiations” with Israel but can’t engage in such talks because of the current climate.

Netanyahu’s government “cannot be considered a partner as long as it responds to calls for peace with settlements and the Judaisation of [Muslim] holy sites” in the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem, Assad said.

He urged Italy and the European Union to put pressure on Israel. ….

Netanyahu offers ‘to build trust’ – [or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”]
BBC

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed a series of “trust-building measures” to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu outlined the steps in a telephone call with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, although details have not yet been made public.

His office said they represented a “real effort” to aid US peace efforts. Washington presented him with several demands last week after the approval of plans for new homes in East Jerusalem…..

‘Cannot cancel’

The Washington Post earlier reported that the Israeli leader would tell Mrs Clinton that he could not cancel the Ramat Shlomo expansion plan, but would assure her that it would not happen “any time soon”.

The newspaper was told by the Israeli ambassador to the US that Mr Netanyahu would also promise not to publicise further construction plans for Jerusalem….

Petraeus’s prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee Thanks to FLC

“…. Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas….”

Gen. David Petraeus weighed in cautiously to the U.S.-Israel dispute today, telling Senators that he “absolutely” backs the efforts of U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict challenges the ability of the United States to advance its interests in the region.

“I keep a very close eye on what goes on” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, though it’s not officially part of Centcom’s area of responsibility, Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday “because of its impact on that part of Centcom that is the Arab world……

“Isn’t the issue not the issue of settlements as much as it is the existence of the state of Israel,” McCain said in the long run up to his question. “Its neighbors with some exceptions have dedicated themselves to the extermination of Israel …. So maybe you could put it all into the larger context of what needs to be done to reduce tensions on the U.S.’s closest ally and friend in many respects. And what needs to be done to defuse” tensions.

McCain then threw in a softball question that eased Petraeus’ discussion of the matter, by asking Petraeus, and isn’t it true that you greatly support Sen. Mitchell’s efforts.

“Absolutely true,” a relieved sounding Petraeus said emphatically.

Later, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) asked Petraeus if he was making contingency plans for a military conflict with Iran, though Lieberman acknowledged it was not the preferred option and that the U.S. would try sanctions first.

“I want to reinforce the fact that previously you said in exercise of your responsibility at Centcom, you are working on actual military plans with regard to Iran,” Lieberman said.
Petraeus responded, “Sir, again, that is probably best for a closed session. As you know, we get paid to prepare for [all sorts of] contingencies. It would be irresponsible [not to.] I try to be responsible.”

“I know how responsible you are,” Lieberman said. “So I assume that means you are working on plans. Let me go to Iraq.”

In his prepared testimony, Petraeus listed the Israeli-Arab conflict as a first-order “cross cutting challenge to security and stability” in the Centcom area of responsibility [AOR]…..

“Additionally, progress on the Israel-Syria peace track could disrupt Iran’s lines of support to Hamas and Hizballah,” he wrote. “Moreover, our development of a cooperative Regional Security Architecture, which includes a regional network of air and missile defense systems as well as hardening and protecting our partners’ critical infrastructure, can help dissuade aggressive Iranian behavior.”

Check out just-concluded two day conference in Damascus of leading Sunni clerics from Syria and Shia clerics from Iran. Intended as a direct reply to those who claim that there can be a new geopolitical order in the region, based on exploiting longterm Sunni v Shia conflict, and even aligning Sunni Arabs with Israel against “greater threat” to the regional security from Iran. Over 1,000 attended the two day event.

Foxman takes a swing at Petraeus
March 18th, 2010
Eli Clifton @ lobelog

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) blasted General David Petraeus today, calling his Senate testimony, “”dangerous and counterproductive.”….

Trial of Top Syrian political Prisoner Begins
Reuters, Friday, 19 February 2010

DAMASCUS – A top political prisoner on Thursday challenged Syrian authorities’ right to try him for “weakening national morale”, the same charge he has spent his professional life as a lawyer campaigning against.

The trial of Mohannad al-Hassani, who has defended leading Syrian opposition figures, began behind closed doors on Thursday in a small office at the Palace of Justice opposite the towering walls of Old Damascus. He was arrested in July last year.

Diplomats from several Western countries waited outside the door. France, whose prime minister was due to visit Syria on Friday to sign economic deals, was absent. “Generalities do not indict. You cannot say that I made statements bad for Syria. Specify the statements and how they… weakened national morale,” Hassani told the judge, according to a transcript of the session released by his lawyers.

The judge said Hassani, who also heads an organisation defending human rights, had attended trials at state security courts without being the lawyer representing the defendants and had been seen taking notes. “I did not sneak in. It is my job as a lawyer and as a human rights monitor to attend. Transparency is a main requisite of any justice system,” Hassani replied.

The pro-government Damascus Bar disbarred the soft-spoken lawyer in November for creating an organisation to defend human rights without its approval and for attending trials without permission. Syria’s ruling Baath Party took power in 1963, banned opposition and imposed emergency law which remains in force. International support

International human rights organisations, lawyers unions, and the European Parliament condemned Hassani’s arrest.

“The defence of human rights requires no authorisation under any circumstances. A justice that does not accept to be seen when it sits cannot consider itself to embody justice,” said Christian Bournazel, head of the Paris Bar.

Hassani, 44, has long argued that weakening national morale was a “medieval” charge invented by Syria’s first military ruler, Hosni al-Zaim, in 1949, and had no place in a state operating in the 21st century.

Syrian authorities do not comment on specific political cases. But President Bashar al-Assad said repeatedly that the political prisoners have violated the constitution and were being treated according to the rule of law. Syria’s constitution underwent a major change in the 1970s, during the rule of Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad, when a clause was added that designated the Baath Party as “leader of the state and society”. After the trial’s session, Hassani was allowed several minutes with his family and friends before being sent back to Adra prison north of the Syrian capital. The second session of his trial is expected to be set next week. He is being held in a ward with 70 prisoners convicted of rape and sexual crimes. Unlike the other prisoners, he is not allowed a mattress to sleep on, exercise or access to the prison’s library and activities, his family said…..

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