Mitchell Moves Ahead With Normalization of US-Sy Relations for Iraq Security and More

Received this note from a reliable source in Damascus:

“The Syrians are very comfortable with the visit. We will see many concrete steps being taken between the US and Syria on all fronts, bilateral and regional.”


….Mr. Mitchell said the American government would try to expedite the process for obtaining individual exemptions to the sanctions, which prohibit the export of all American products to Syria except food and medicine.

The move will particularly affect “requests to export products related to information technology and telecommunication equipment and parts and components related to the safety of civil aviation,” said a State Department spokesman, Andrew J. Laine.

While the shift does not change the letter of the law of the sanctions, which were passed by Congress in 2003 and cannot be modified without Congressional consent, administration officials said it was significant because it indicated a change in how the White House would view requests by companies for waivers to sell their wares to Syria.

It is also another notable instance of the Obama administration opening the door to Syria on what it calls a basis of mutual interest and respect — and as part of a broader strategy of trying to get the country to turn away from its alliances with Iran and Islamic militant groups.

….The sanctions have powerful backers in Congress, and the initial reaction against any effort to ease them was swift.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she was “deeply troubled that the United States would make unilateral concessions to the Syrian regime and ease pressure on Damascus, even as the State Department recently reported to Congress that Syria continues to pursue advanced missile and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capabilities and to sponsor violent Islamist extremist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.”

Representative Eliot L. Engel, a Democrat from New York, who helped write the sanctions bill, said that while granting such exemptions was “perfectly legal” under the act, he would urge caution. “Syria, from what I can see, has not changed its spots,” he said.

… Mr. Assad also tentatively agreed that a future delegation from the United States Central Command and Iraq would travel to Damascus, Syria’s capital, and discuss greater cooperation in securing the Syria-Iraq border against insurgent traffic, a high priority of the Obama administration….

U.S. Woos Damascus by Easing Export Ban
The Wall Street Journal, JULY 28, 2009

DAMASCUS — The Obama administration has told Syria that it will work to ease U.S. sanctions against Damascus, as Washington intensifies its pursuit of détente with a longtime Middle East rival.

The U.S. decision targets spare aircraft parts, information-technology products and telecommunications equipment, sales of which have been restricted by U.S. sanctions on Syria enacted in 2004. The step was conveyed Sunday by Washington’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, to Syrian President Bashar Assad during an hour-long meeting in Damascus.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets with Washington’s Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, at al-Shaab palace in Damascus on July 26.

The move represents the latest action in a rapidly accelerating rapprochement between Washington and Damascus initiated after President Barack Obama took office this year, said officials from both countries.

Messrs. Mitchell and Assad also discussed Sunday the possibility of the Pentagon dispatching to Damascus its second delegation of officers from the U.S. Central Command to discuss greater cooperation in preventing the flow of al Qaeda militants and other foreign fighters into Iraq through Syrian soil, said Syrian officials.

The White House hopes to woo Mr. Assad away from his strategic alliance with Iran, in an effort to stabilize Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

For Syria, Mr. Obama’s decision could mean relief from pervasive sanctions that have crippled Syria’s airlines and slowed the Middle East nation’s entrance into the information age. Among the companies that could be affected are airplane maker Boeing Co.; software companies Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.; and information-technology companies like Cisco Systems Inc.

“We received assurances that the relations between the two countries should resume on the basis of mutual interests and most importantly on the basis of mutual respect,” Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, said Monday in an interview. “We really welcome such a new approach.”

While significant, U.S. officials said Monday that Washington’s move doesn’t mark a formal lifting or easing of its sanctions on Damascus. President George W. Bush authorized the sanctions in 2004, under legislation known as the Syria Accountability Act, specifically because of Damascus’s support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which are fighting Israeli forces from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Administration officials said Mr. Obama would seek to use his waiver authority under congressionally mandated sanctions to aid purchases of U.S. products deemed important to the welfare of the Syrian people…..

Syria vocally opposed the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite Damascus’s long-running disputes with Saddam Hussein. Some Syrian officials even worried Mr. Bush’s government could seek to topple Mr. Assad’s government after occupying Baghdad. Today, Syrian officials say that President Obama’s announcement of a clear timetable for withdrawal has provided Damascus with new incentives to cooperate on Iraq.

“Now with a new administration, when we have assurances that the Unites States will withdraw from Iraq by 2011, then we do believe that full cooperation between Syria and the United States in different fields, not only security issues, will definitely be welcomed,” Mr. Mekdad said.

The Obama administration’s moves toward rapprochement with Mr. Assad, however, are raising concerns among some U.S. allies in the region, such as Israel and Egypt, as well as some Syrian democracy activists. They worry that relieving pressure on Damascus could lessen its willingness to cut ties to Hezbollah and Hamas and to open Syria politically.

“The regime feels very confident politically now,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian democracy activist based in Washington. “Damascus feels like it’s getting a lot without giving up anything.”

Currently, U.S. companies seeking to sell specific waiverable products to Syria can seek a license to move forward with the transactions. But under the Bush administration, many of these requests were denied, said Syrian officials, and the bureaucratic process also hindered acquisitions. The State Department said in a statement Monday that Mr. Mitchell told Mr. Assad Sunday that the U.S. now “would process all eligible applications for export licenses to Syria as quickly as possible.” The State Department added that any future move to actually lift sanctions on Syria “would require close coordination and consultation with Congress.”

Syrian officials say that the sanctions have severely hit the country’s national airline, Syrian Arab Airlines, by denying it spare parts. “The sanctions are creating a significant barrier, as multinationals don’t want to come in,” said Nabil Sukkar, a former Syrian World Bank economist.

Messrs. Mitchell’s and Assad’s discussion about sending the Centcom, or central command, mission to Damascus is designed to develop better cooperation between the Pentagon and the Syrian military in securing the Syria-Iraq border, according to Syrian diplomats. Syrian officials said this week that they are open to receive such a delegation, but want it to include Centcom commander, Gen. David Petraeus. A State Department official declined to comment on the issue.

Ibrahim Hamidi writes in al-Hayat that Hamas and US officials as well as Europeans met in Geneva to talk about a two-state solution on June 16 and 17.

لقاءات جنيف بين «حماس» وأميركيين وأوروبيين تناولت «حل الدولتين» وشروط «اللجنة الرباعية»
الثلاثاء, 28 يوليو 2009
دمشق – ابراهيم حميدي
اكدت مصادر فلسطينية لـ «الحياة» ان مسؤولين في حركة «حماس» وحكومتها المقالة عقدوا سلسلة اجتماعات مع مسؤولين ونواب اميركيين واوروبيين حاليين وسابقين في جنيف يومي 16 و17 حزيران (يونيو) الماضي، وذلك في اطار رغبة هذه الاطراف في الاطلاع على موقف «حماس» من مسألتي قبول «حل الدولتين» وشروط «اللجنة الرباعية» الدولية.
وشارك في اللقاء كل من عضو المكتب السياسي في «حماس» وزير الخارجية السابق في الحكومة المقالة محمود الزهار، ووزير الصحة باسم نعيم، والناطق باسم الحكومة طاهر النونو، ومسؤول العلاقات الخارجية في الحركة، ممثلها في بيروت اسامة حمدان. ونظمت اللقاءات بدعوة من «فوروورد ثنكينغ» بحضور المختص في فك النزاعات اوليفر ماكيرنين، و«هيومان ديالوغ» وممثلها تيم غولدستون، وبتمويل من الحكومة السويسرية ومشاركة مبعوث وزارة الخارجية السويسرية الى الشرق الاوسط جان دانيال روخ.
وبحسب المعلومات المتوافرة، شارك في اللقاءات كل من وكيل وزارة الخارجية الاميركي السابق توماس بيكرنغ، ومسؤول برنامج الشرق الاوسط في «مجموعة الازمات الدولية» روبرت مالي، والسفير البريطاني السابق في نيويورك وفي بغداد جيرمي غرينستوك، ووزير الخارجية الفرنسي السابق هوبير فيدرين، ورئيس لجنة الشؤون الخارجية في البرلمان الالماني روبرت بولينز، اضافة الى باحثين وخبراء اوروبيين واميركيين آخرين عرفوا بتأييدهم الانخراط مع «حماس».
واوضحت المصادر الفلسطينية ان لقاءات كهذه عقدت في السابق «غير ان الجديد في هذا اللقاء انه حصل في اوروبا، وان الاميركيين في شكل او بآخر داعمون له». وزادت: «حماس لديها اشكالية في قبول شروط اللجنة الرباعية (الاعتراف باسرائيل وبالاتفاقات الموقعة معها ونبذ العنف)، في المقابل فان الاميركيين غير قادرين على التعامل مع حماس كما هي، لذلك باتوا يشجعون البحث عن مقاربات جديدة للتعامل معها والبحث عن قواعد جديدة للعبة السياسية، اذ فهم ممثلو الحركة ان الاميركيين ليسوا بعيدين عن اللقاء» الذي عقد في العاصمة السويسرية. وتناولت الجلسات التي استمرت يومين عناوين تتعلق بـ «الحرب على غزة واتفاق الهدنة»، و«الحوار الفلسطيني – الفلسطيني»، و«الفرق بين تجربتي النزاع في ايرلندا وفي الشرق الاوسط»، اضافة الى عناوين أخرى تتعلق باحتمالات السلام والدولة الفلسطينية.
وبحسب المصادر الفلسطينية، فان وفد «حماس» تصدى لاسئلة دقيقة طرحها المشاركون مثل: هل تقبل الحركة بحل الدولتين؟ وهل يعني قبول الحركة دولة فلسطينية على حدود العام 1967 اعترافاً غير مباشر باسرائيل؟ واوضحت المصادر ان ممثلي الحركة جددوا تأكيد رفض الاعتراف باسرائيل، لكنهم اشاروا الى الخطوات والمواقف المرنة التي اتخذت اخيرا.
وكان رئيس المكتب السياسي لـ «حماس» خالد مشعل قال في خطاب علني ان الحركة «لن تعطل» اي حل سياسي جدي يطرح في المنطقة. وعُلم ان مسؤولين غربيين، بينهم نائب وزير الخارجية الروسي الكسندر سلطانوف، حضوا «حماس» اخيرا على «الاقتراب» من شروط «الرباعية»، وان قيادة الحركة اشارت الى المرونة التي ابدتها الحركة في الفترة الاخيرة وتمثلت في ثلاث نقاط: حديث «حماس» عن دولة بحدود العام 1967، وطرحها لـ «هدنة طويلة الامد»، وقبول «احترام» الاتفاقات الموقعة، ما يعني انها لن تلغيها بل ستتعامل معها بجدية. وجددت المصادر ان الحركة لا تستطيع القبول الواضح بمبادرة السلام العربية لانها «حركة تحرر وطني لا يمكن ان تقبل الاعتراف بالاحتلال، اضافة الى اشكالية موضوع اللاجئين»، مع تفهمها قبول الدول العربية لهذه المبادرة.

Sami Moubayed: “The Syrians are capable and willing to help the Americans in Iraq, but want Obama to pull the right strings – a la James Baker in 1991 – to get the Israelis to change course vis-a-vis Middle East peace”

Obama lifts some sanctions on Syria
July 27, 2009, United Press International

….Imad Mustafa, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, said the embassy was informed that Washington had lifted economic sanctions related to civilian aviation and the export of communications equipment to Syria, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reports….

Mustafa said U.S. President Barack Obama had suspended several of the sanctions measures, noting more restrictions could be lifted in the future.

“We are focusing with President Obama’s administration on using the U.S. president’s executive authority to suspend the execution of the important articles in the sanctions law,” he said.

Mustafa said the effort was part of a growing sign that Damascus was a vital player in the region. …..

Human Security in the Arab World:

The UNDP released its new Arab Human Development Report on Tuesday, which concluded that “fault lines” in the region have deepened, and that a lack of human security has become a primary factor inhibiting human development. Stressing the importance of rule of law, the report cited the role of Arab states in undermining the human security of their citizens.

Syria back as regional player impossible to circumvent .. Bashar Assad assumes his late father’s regional power….

La Syrie redevient un acteur régional incontournable

LE MONDE | 27.07.09 | 14h20

ans les luttes d’influence qui agitent le Moyen-Orient, Bachar Al-Assad peut se targuer d’avoir remporté une belle victoire en récupérant, au moins provisoirement, la place qu’avait jadis occupée son père, Hafez Al-Assad, celle de leader incontournable dans la région. En atteste la visite, dimanche 26 juillet à Damas, de George Mitchell, l’envoyé spécial de la Maison Blanche pour le Moyen-Orient. Le 14 juin, George Mitchell rencontrait déjà Bachar Al-Assad à Damas pour ce qui constituait alors la première visite officielle d’un diplomate américain de ce rang en Syrie depuis 2005.

En quatre ans, Bachar Al-Assad est parvenu à hisser la Syrie de statut d’Etat infréquentable au rang de puissance incontournable, courtisée par presque l’ensemble de la communauté internationale, sans pour autant avoir répondu concrètement aux exigences des uns et des autres.

Entre 2005 et 2008, le régime syrien apparaissait fragile, menacé par l’administration américaine de George Bush, boycotté par la France, l’Arabie saoudite et l’Egypte qui le suspectaient d’avoir partie liée à l’assassinat du premier ministre libanais Rafic Hariri en 2005.

Aujourd’hui, la situation du leader syrien est à ce point confortable qu’il peut appuyer verbalement l’aile dure de Téhéran, incarnée par l’ayatollah Ali Khamenei et le président Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, en pleine crise iranienne, tout en se voyant offrir par les Etats-Unis un signe tangible de normalisation avec le retour, annoncé le 24 juin et après quatre ans d’absence, d’un ambassadeur américain à Damas.

Le 3 juillet, M. Assad, décontracté, invitait, sur la chaîne britannique Sky News, son homologue américain Barack Obama à venir à Damas. “Le président Obama est jeune. Le président Assad est aussi très jeune. Peut-être est-il temps pour ces jeunes dirigeants de faire une différence dans le monde”, avait déclaré son épouse Asma.

L’Arabie saoudite, à l’instar des Etats-Unis, très préoccupée des ambitions nucléaires iraniennes, a elle aussi décidé de dépêcher un ambassadeur en Syrie, à un poste vacant depuis un an. Sans avoir renoncé à soutenir ni le Hezbollah libanais ni le Hamas palestinien, deux menaces armées aux portes d’Israël, Damas a également repris langue, indirectement, avec Tel-Aviv, grâce à la médiation de la Turquie. “Les Syriens possèdent la clé de la région”, souligne le président turc, M. Abdullah Gül.

Le même constat avait été fait, en 2008, par la France qui, pour sauver le projet d’Union pour la Méditerranée (UPM) cher au président Sarkozy, avait initié le retour tangible de la Syrie dans les bonnes grâces internationales. M. Assad figurait ainsi parmi les invités d’honneur au défilé du 14 juillet, en 2008.

L’élection d’un président libanais après des mois de blocage, l’échange de représentations diplomatiques entre le Liban et la Syrie et le bon déroulement des législatives libanaises du 7 juin ont été autant de démonstrations, selon la France, de la fiabilité de la Syrie. Elle se voit récompensée pour sa “non-nuisance” dans le dossier libanais.


Les rapports entre Claude Guéant, le secrétaire général de l’Elysée, et le maître de Damas sont officiellement “constructifs”, voire amicaux, en tout cas réguliers. Le chef de la diplomatie française, Bernard Kouchner, a aussi présidé dans la capitale syrienne une conférence régionale des ambassadeurs français le 11 juillet. A cette occasion, il a rencontré les autorités syriennes, auxquelles il n’accordait pourtant que peu de crédit lors de ses premières tentatives de démêler l’écheveau libanais.

Le pari stratégique français visant à éloigner la Syrie de son allié iranien a montré ses limites. En revanche, les bonnes dispositions françaises ont drainé ce que Damas espérait : une reprise des relations avec Washington.

La Syrie occupe aussi un rôle pivot dans la résolution de la crise interpalestinienne entre le Hamas et le Fatah. Parce que la capitale syrienne est la base arrière des radicaux palestiniens. Mahmoud Abbas, le président palestinien, s’en va consulter très régulièrement Bachar Al-Assad. Début juillet, Omar Suleiman, le chef des moukhabarrat égyptien, infatigable mécano du processus de réconciliation, a envoyé son adjoint et son directeur de cabinet à Damas.

Mais le rapprochement le plus spectaculaire, reste celui entamé avec l’Arabie saoudite en janvier, à l’occasion du sommet arabe du Koweït. De sources informées, cette “réconciliation” a été décidée par le roi Abdallah, qui s’en est ouvert à Bachar Al-Assad dans un tête-à-tête en marge du sommet, sans avoir consulté au préalable son partenaire égyptien, Hosni Moubarak. Une visite du roi Abdallah à Damas est attendue prochainement. Le sort d’un nouveau gouvernement libanais pourrait se jouer à cette occasion.

Ainsi la Syrie, dont l’armée avait été chassée sans ménagement du Liban après l’assassinat de Rafic Hariri, retrouve son ancien rôle d’arbitre des querelles libanaises. Malgré la victoire du clan dit “anti-syrien” aux législatives du 7 juin. L’importance de la représentation de l’opposition (dont le Hezbollah) dans le gouvernement libanais sera négociée sous l’égide de la Syrie.

Fortement symbolique de la “victoire” syrienne dans la région sera, enfin, la visite à Damas du nouveau chef du gouvernement libanais, Saad Hariri. Il avait pourtant accusé la Syrie d’avoir assassiné son père. Mais comme tant de Libanais, avant lui, il devra reprendre l’éternel chemin de Damas. – Cécile Hennion

Juan Cole points to one Obama appointment-disappointment

… In the White House, I think it would be hard to find a worse choice than the new Special Assistant to the President, Dennis Ross. Three examples of his skill: a) in the early negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when he was supposedly the honest broker, he took a more disruptive position than even the Israelis, apparently shocking even them; b) in the build-up to the Iranian elections he sponsored and organized a program to “electronically invade” Iran with destabilizing messages trying, more subtly to be sure than the 1953 CIA-MI6 coup, to “regime change” it. Whatever else could be said about the “Iran-Syria Operations Group” , it played right into the hands of Ahmadinejad and the rightwing of the ulama and the military, giving them a proof text for American interference in the elections and thus may have backfired since no issue in Iranian politics is as sensitive as the fear of foreign espionage; (c) just before his appointment to be the chief honcho on all the Middle East, Ross published a book whose message was essentially ‘let’s try a bit of diplomacy for a short time. Of course it won’t work, but it will justify our attacking.’ That is, his approach to peace-seeking is consistent and negative. Since he is now Obama’s point man, we are in for deeper trouble….

Syria: Building Foundations
Oxford business group, 28 July 2009

Syria’s construction industry can look to the future with a degree of confidence, as investor interest in the country increases and state reforms take hold, though in the shorter term the sector still has a few obstacles to surmount. ….

As part of its wide-ranging reform programme, the government has put in place new regulations governing foreign investment, especially in the financial and tourism sectors. This in turn has resulted in a ramping up of construction work on business centres such as the $500m Eighth Gate project in Damascus and the $217m resort being built by Kuwait’s Al Kharafi Group on the outskirts of the capital.

However, progress of the reform process has not been even. According to the World Bank’s 2009 Doing Business report, which measures and compares regulatory requirements across 181 countries, it has actually become slightly more complex to build a warehouse in Syria over the past year.

The report ranked Syria 132nd overall in its category of dealing with construction permits, down from 124th for 2008, and well behind the UAE, which came in 41st, or Saudi Arabia at 50th. The World Bank cited 26 separate steps that had to be taken before a warehouse could be completed, with the whole process taking 128 days.

Though Syria had slipped down the overall rankings, the report did note some significant improvements, including the speeding up of the process of registering property and an easing of regulations governing trading across borders, important when the import of building materials is taken into account.

On the reverse side of the coin, Syria was ranked near the bottom of the ladder, at 178th, in terms of ease of obtaining credit for construction work, a massive 94 rungs below neighbouring Lebanon.

Although investors are becoming more active in the Syrian construction trade, and demand for large-scale projects is growing thanks to the government’s reforms, still more work needs to be done to promote development and fast track the expansion of the building industry.

Syria: No Exceptions for ‘Honor Killings’
Penal Code Change Positive, but it Still Eases Punishment for Some Who Murder Women

(Beirut, July 28, 2009) – The Syrian government should treat all murders alike and not make exceptions for so-called “honor killings,” Human Rights Watch said today. On July 1, 2009, President Bashar al-Assad abolished Article 548 of the Penal Code, which had waived punishment for a man found to have killed a female family member in a case “provoked” by “illegitimate sex acts,” as well as for a husband who killed his wife because of an extramarital affair. The article also lowered penalties if a killing was found to be based on a “suspicious state” concerning a female family member. The article that replaced it still allows for mitigated punishment for “honor killings,” but requires a sentence of at least two years.

STRATFOR has been closely tracking the slow-going rapprochement between Syria and the United States.

“The “pessoptimist” George Mitchell”
July 28, Al-Watan, by Ibrahim Darraji

“The Arabs placed too much hope in Mitchell, believing he will be able to force the American administration to threaten to impose sanctions on Israel to contain its wild building of settlement projects, which forced the spokesperson of the American Department of State, Philip Crowley, to anticipate Mitchell’s visit by saying: “There have been some reports that were misunderstood about the United States’ intention to place financial and economic pressures on Israel (due to the settlements dossier). This is not true and this is why Mitchell headed to the Middle East”… Amid this climate, questions are being raised about the way George Mitchell will handle the situation and his ability to succeed where others have failed throughout the past decades. However, it seems to be too soon to raise such questions as it would be wrong to show excessive optimism or pessimism since George Mitchell is known for his patience….

Cairo answers Jumblatt: “He is Making Advances to Syria and Hezbollah”

The PSP leader Walid Jumblatt, in his most recent weekly editorial in an-Anbaa, attacked Egypt for having hosted Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony held last Thursday to commemorate the July 23rd Revolution. His criticism has led to tension with Cairo, which answered him back through their Foreign Ministry Spokesman,Husam Zaki.

Zaki said : “No one should forget that Jumblat, a leader in the March 14 coalition and who had received Egyptian support, said things like this about Egypt, which had received him more than once,”

“We categorically reject any speculation on Egyptian stances or Egyptian history,” Zaki said in remarks published by pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on Wednesday. “We are fully aware of the objectives behind Jumblatt’s remarks,” he added

Al-Hayat, however, quoted official Egyptian sources in Cairo as saying that Egypt was “not surprised” by Jumbulatt’s statements.
“We are aware that Jumblatt has been undergoing political re-positioning and is making advances to Syria and Hezbollah,” the Egyptian official said; adding sarcastically, “Jumblatt is a sectarian leader and his oratory is filled with political slogans, without real convictions behind them.”

Frederick Deknatel
has a lovely story of Iraqi artists in Damascus:

Iraqi artist Alaa Ismael paints in his Damascus apartment.
(Frederick Deknatel)

Syria: Iraqi artists, now refugees, struggle to pursue art in exile
, | 07.28.09

DAMASCUS, SYRIA – To support his art in Baghdad, Alaa Ismael opened an interior-design office in a commercial area near his house. But after the American invasion, customers dwindled as checkpoints choked the city.

In 2004, his office was burned and robbed by extremists. “They killed everyone, not only artists,” he said. “Jihadis would threaten us, calling us ‘kafirs’ [unbelievers] because of our art, because of the style or subject of our work.” While he was never threatened personally, “threats were all around.”

So Mr. Ismael left with his wife, sister, and nephews for Syria, where he has been for the past five years. He quickly shakes his head when asked about going back. His oldest daughter was an infant when they left Iraq; his second daughter was born here this year.

They all share the same apartment in a ramshackle hillside neighborhood overlooking Damascus. One of its rooms is his studio, where large finished canvases and rolled-up paintings are stacked, unsold.

Ismael is one of dozens of Iraqi refugee artists here, struggling to paint and sell his work to support himself and his family and maintain a semblance of his former life in Baghdad.

“Before the war, Baghdad was the cultural and artistic center,” Ismael said. “There were galleries, art schools, universities. There was movement.”

For him, more opportunities in art exist abroad now – through friends and fellow artists in the Gulf and Europe – than in exile here in Syria.

“There are few galleries,” he says, “and with competition between Syrian and Iraqi artists, Syrians are always preferred. We want to show our pictures to the world, but the problem is always how to sell them.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency has supported many Iraqi artists with local exhibitions and other promotional projects in the past few years, and a handful of galleries in Damascus show Iraqi art. “But a Syrian artist is here in his own country, where everything is in his or her own place,” artist Omar Odeh explains. “We’re here from war.”

Mr. Odeh, who unlike Ismael travels occasionally to Baghdad where his family has returned, hopes the Iraqi government will use growing oil revenues to support displaced Iraqi artists. “Of course, it’s not the first thing our new government is thinking about after security and reconciliation. But if the government for me is like a parent, they should be the first one supporting you. You can trust in yourself if you have your nation,” he says.

Today Odeh works at a busy rate, his paintings hang in galleries in the Old City and even at the new Four Seasons hotel. “It’s not the rule, because some Iraqis succeed in Europe or America. It’s possible for an artist to succeed outside his home during war,” he says. “Look at Picasso and ‘Guernica.’ ”

Comments (21)

San Diego Web Designer said:

We have all immigrated from somewhere. These artists deserve the same privileges and rights

July 29th, 2009, 10:48 pm


norman said:

This is one of the important decision in Syria , New district attorneys in the counties , that is an important legal progress and opens the way to fight corruption starting on the local level, they are trying to have what we have in the US , district attorney in each county ,

وزير العدل يندب قضاة لشغل موقع “محام عام” في عدد من المحافظات

اصدر وزير العدل يوم الاربعاء قرار بندب قضاة الى “محامي عام” في كل من دمشق وحلب وطرطوس وحماة وادلب ، كما نص القرار على انهاء وندب قضاة في عدد من المدن السورية

July 30th, 2009, 1:50 am


Amir in Tel Aviv said:


WOW..!! that is great news. It’s like re-inventing the wheel..!!
But there’s only a tiny problem; that is, in the US, and in the “west”
in general, the position of the ‘district attorney’ comes with a well
established system, that supports and constitutes this establishment:
that is the law created by the people’s representatives, and the accountability,
(that makes it possible to sack those in position), and the opportunity
to elect those attorneys, or at least, to elect those who appoint them.

You don’t find any of this in the Syrian novel creation.

Just like with the new Syrian stock exchange.
They sit in the palace, overlooking Damascus, and they think.
“Why shouldn’t we have a successful SE, just like in the “west” ..?
Yalla.. lets open a successful Syrian stock exchang..”.

But Stock-exchange is not something you push a button and you have it.
Stock exchange MUST be supported by a holistic System:
economic legislation by the people’s representatives, regulators
that the people can trust, accountable (economic) leaders, who the
public appoints, trusted and totally free economic press.. etc.

Syria lost it way, and wants to imitate… That’s fine.
There’s nothing wrong with imitation. The Japanese post WW2 were the
masters of imitation. In fact, all the Japanese industry was based on
imitating and imitations. But they did it well, and they did it authentically.

The Syrians want to bake a cake. But without the flower, and with no

A cake made only of sugar.

July 30th, 2009, 4:06 am


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

Flour … of course..

July 30th, 2009, 4:12 am


Alex said:

Report: Netanyahu freezes construction of 900 East Jerusalem homes

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frozen a project for the construction of some 900 apartments in East Jerusalem, Channel 10 television reported late Wednesday.

The report of Netanyahu’s order to freeze the project came a day after he held talks in Jerusalem with U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. Netanyahu has been under tremendous pressure from the United States to freeze all construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

According to Channel 10, The houses were planned to be built in Pisgat Ze’ev, one of several Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem built beyond the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank.

July 30th, 2009, 4:55 am


Shai said:


Channel 10 (owned amongst others by billionaire Yossi Meiman) is about to go bankrupt and be shut down. They’ll say just about anything right now… 🙂 Other media channels, however, are suggesting the U.S. is beginning to accept that building already started in certain Settlements cannot be stopped. The proof will be in the pudding.


Not that Syria needs your approval to enact any type of reform, be it tiny or gigantic, but why would you bash any step taken in the right direction? Is the goal to humiliate your neighbor? To show it just how far it is from anywhere it ought to be? As if our own nation is some prime example to be followed. To remind you, we also don’t elect the leaders that “represent us”. A tiny fraction of Israelis actually elect our MK’s. Our vote only determines how many MK’s each party will have, not WHO will be there.

As for Japan, you’ll be good to recall that it wasn’t quite a democratic state before 1945, and yet look where it is today. Nations cannot and do not become democratic overnight. It is still taking America time to realize this in Iraq, and look at the price it has cost them, and especially the Iraqi people. To change the system in Syria (as anywhere else in our region) will take a long time, and a lot of help. It is a careful step-by-step process, not a wham-bam one.

My first reaction was to actually congratulate Syria, not bash her, for enacting local district attorneys.

July 30th, 2009, 5:59 am


jad said:

Norman, ALex,
It’s so depressing reading domestic Syrian news lately, there is nothing positive to read about it at all, its only crimes, pollution, destroying the environment, corruption, failing development, unsuccessful projects, suspicious government decisions and rules, shutting down media channels, jailing any Syrian who dares to say his mind, blocking web sites..etc…
Could you please try to help me with these questions, I have my own answers but I need to read your honest take on them;

What are we, the Syrian, proud of the most at the moment and why?
Are we doing the right choices when it comes to our domestic policies on any field and why?
What do you think are the main obstacles in our progress plan?
Do you think there is a plan (ANY PLAN) about ANYTHING for improvement?
How do you explain the security body involvement in almost all creative fields and that there is no existence of any civil society in Syria until now?
Does the president needs to micro manage every little detail and aspect of every Syrian? Is it a good decision for him to get involved in such issues and why?
What is the limitation of any moukhabarat officer and is there any kind of questioning for what he does to any Syrian?
Why we are going nowhere but backward locally/Internationaly for the last 40 years? Isn’t it time for Syrians to move forward yet?

July 30th, 2009, 6:35 am


Alex said:

Dear Jad,

I am about to go to sleep (east coast), but I’ll try to give you a quick answer for now

1) I disagree with you regarding the degree to which you perceive the negativity.

2) News are always bad news … if you are reading bad Syria news lately. Listen to ABC news at 6PM and 90% of the news is going to be also bad.

3) Any government system is bound to have a bundle of attributes … some are good and some are not so good. Syria’s system is one of those systems that have its advantaged and its disadvantages.

4) There are plans, there are improvements … compare 2000 to 2009.

July 30th, 2009, 7:27 am


jad said:

Dear Alex,
Thank you for the answers.
My take on what you wrote is that all the bad LOCAL news we see on ABC, BBC or any BC channel in the world does effect the individual who are involved in that news, in Syria it becomes annoying because most of the news I’m talking about affect EVERY SYRIAN not a handful of people scattered in Damascus/Aleppo/Homs/Hama/Lattakia and this why I’m very critical lately, the way I see it is that no progress or a firm push to do better has been forced, it’s all superficial unaffected and sometimes laughable decisions by some government representatives who doesn’t deserve to serve anybody but their own. This government with all the ministers are USELESS and they should be put on trial for all the unforgivable mistakes are doing, ALL OF THEM.
Regarding the changes between 2000 and 2009, well, in 9 years they should’ve done much better on all levels but they didn’t and for me that is a huge failure, I’m not denying the few gain they did but saying that they didn’t need 9 years to do so, it could’ve been done in much less time.

July 30th, 2009, 4:22 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:


The only persons who could be “humiliated” by what I said, are those
who constitute the Syrian Junta, and those who promote them, such as
the owners and editors of this blog.

I think that you are a pessimistic guy… would you agree with me?

And what you write on the Israeli politics, is baseless.
Israelis do not elect their representatives? First there’s the party
primaries (personal voting), and then there’s the general elections.

You are patronizing, SHAI.
No Syrian need your “help”. I absolutely trust the Syrian people, and
hope that one day they’ll wake-up from their long hibernation.

Democracy can come “wham-bam” ( as it happened in the Czech republic,
Slovakia, some eastern European countries, some Latin America states ),
or it can come slowly and with price. No one can predict that.
Pessimism isn’t a helpful ingredient in this process.

What I categorically argue, is that a real improvement cannot come without
the people taking power. ( Democracy ).
This is true world-wide, therefor true to Syria too.

Take for example the stupid and outraging decision taken by the Israeli
government, to expel African refugees from Tel Aviv and the suburbs.
What made them backup, after less than 1 week?
Did they admit of making a mistake? Rulers never “admit”.
Did they realize that this is unjust? Rulers never do that.
It was Israeli free press, and many good people who spoke out, that
made the government to void their stupid decision.

Do you see this kind of change happening in places, in which free
press is not allowed ??

July 30th, 2009, 6:35 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

Sorry… pullback .. and not “backup”.

July 30th, 2009, 6:42 pm


jad said:

For God sake, Israel as an occupation/country/tribe is as useless and as backward as any country/tribe in that region, its democracy that you Amir are bragging about is nothing but an ugly pure racism. Its freaking aggression, occupation, Nazi-like settlers actions and endless,meaningless and bloody wars are documented, so why you think that Israel is in anyway better than any 3rd world country?
Your Israel is like a tasteless prostitute wearing a cheap fake brand name suite over her worn out stinky underwear sitting in a country club with all the big powers as a servant mistaken herself of being a real madam, well it’s not, and will never be…so wake u and stop lecturing us about your tribe and tent, it’s the most stupid and repeated comment I read on here, you need to remove the big tree in your eyes before lecturing anyone.

July 30th, 2009, 7:41 pm


Shai said:


If you think you (an average Israeli citizen) elect your representatives, you’re dead wrong. You do not. Only a tiny portion of Israelis vote in the party primaries, and only there do people vote on who will represent their party. In the general elections, where you and I vote, our voice determines only the SIZE of each party. We do not determine WHO will be in that party, nor who will even lead the country, as can be seen in the latest elections, where Kadima won the most seats (i.e. more people voted for Kadima than for Likud), yet the Likud candidate for PM still ended up heading the new government.

Using the example you gave to demonstrate how well democratic regimes can reverse ill-decisions was a good idea. But how representative is this example? Can you think of a few other ill-decisions that haven’t been reversed, but in fact perpetuated for decades, precisely because of the political impotency of our particular “democratic” regime? I can think of a few. How about the Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank? How about the occupation of Lebanon, and of the Golan? How about local and state laws that make it near-impossible for Arab-Israelis to buy land, or to join Jewish settlements?

July 30th, 2009, 7:42 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:


OK. I agree with you that the Israeli system is voting to parties and
their platforms, and not personal ( unless you want to influence, and
vote in some party’s primaries ). For Israel, this is the system
that emerged. Still, it manages to reflect the people’s wish.

For me, my vote is personal. I follow Shely Yehimovic where ever she
chooses to go. Now, she’s joined the ‘Labor’, so my vote goes to Labor.
So it can be personal overall.

About the second part of your comment. Israeli policy definitely reflects
the people’s wishes.
Unlike ALEX’s suggestion to determine policy by Zogby poll, the majority
of Israelis want to continue and “occupy” the Gaza, the west bank and
the Golan. Every occasional opinion poll shows that, and the ultimate
approval of this, you get in the general elections. The political
map that keeps on emerging elections after elections, show that,
and reflects the choice of Israelis.

Yes. You and people who hold the same views like yours, are (at the
moment) a minority.
So you have to draw a line between what YOU think is right to do, and
what the MAJORITY of us think. The majority decides.

Israel withdrew from south Lebanon because Israelis wanted it; Barak
promised to withdraw, and then was elected to do just that. Which he did.

Israelis wanted a change in policy toward the Palestinian issue;
Sharon felt it, and created Kadima (to bring this change). I’m sure,
if he had stayed with us, he would have brought a solution.

What I’m trying to show, is that everything that happens in politics,
reflects (eventually) the wish of the majority of us.
Don’t you think so?


Thank you for your reply.

July 30th, 2009, 8:53 pm


jad said:

Glad to help people in denial of the hole they live in!

July 30th, 2009, 9:24 pm


Shai said:


I’m not going to talk about governments from the Left, which have done more damage for Israel with encouragement and support for the Occupation than any Likud government ever has. So I’ll focus for the moment on the Right, or at least on ex-Likud leaders.

In the past decade, we’ve had two prime ministers who were lifelong Likud members – Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. As you’ll recall, BOTH stated very clearly their intention to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, and to enable the creation of a Palestinian state. Unlike Bibi, they were super-clear about this. And, a majority of Israelis voted FOR both PM’s, based specifically on this agenda. And yet, despite the “democratic” character of both elections, of the regimes that came to power as a result, still neither PM fulfilled his promise. With Sharon, it can be argued that he would have continued. But what of Olmert? Not only did he not withdraw, or even remove a single settlement, but he actually got us into two more wars, in Lebanon ’06 and Gaza ’09.

Our so-called Democracy is so fragile, it is so unstable, that few governments last 4 years, and almost without exception, tiny parties (with barely 10 seats out of 120) make and break coalitions time after time. If Bibi wants to see a Palestine created, he has to think of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, and the billions he’s going to have to take out of our Treasury, to pay for Shas “madrassas”. Did you or I ever vote these people in? Did we ever support their agendas? Did we ever consider that our future will depend on them as much as it does? Isn’t every single PM voted into power held near-hostage by the fragile coalition that he forms? Isn’t strategic-outlook in Israeli politics regularly replaced by tactical-maneuvering? What do we know about Bibi in these past 100 days? Any idea what he has in mind for Israel’s future? No, but we know he wins and loses this tiny daily battles as he does.

We cannot be compared to most Democracies in the West. Maybe to Italy, where democratic “regimes” there also come and go like the daily tide. And where corruption rules far more than honesty. When was the last time you felt a Minister of Treasury represented you? Or a Minister of Education got to pass budgets for serious Reform? When have you felt that you could honestly TRUST any of the politicians the Party primaries produce? When have you felt you could trust the Parties themselves (their members)?

We can lecture the Syrians, and the Kuwaitis, and the Sudanese all day long about Freedom and Democracy and the Will-of-the-People, but you and I both know ours is a much closer version of a “Souq” than of a Parliament that truly represents the people.

July 30th, 2009, 9:38 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:


I do appreciate your views. I do not agree with you on all, not because I’m
a blind and fool patriot.

I’m also aware of the Jewish habit to self-criticism.
I’m critical some times, but also able to acknowledge to the good things
we managed to build here.

1) “..Israel is a fragile democracy, can be compared with Italy”.
I think Israeli democracy is strong, and well rooted. Berlusconi couldn’t
have done things here, like he does there. He changed the laws in order
to avoid charges. This couldn’t have happened here. I remind you that
Omri Sharon, (the son of) served time in prison over criminal finance
of his father’s campaign. No one tried to alter the law.

I watched the first democracy on earth (the British of course), with
great amusement, over the personal expenses scandal.
This couldn’t have happened in Israel.!! Why? because the expenses
of the Israeli Knesset members are shown in a transparent way in
the Internet site of the Knesset:
(each and every expense).

You want more? I believe that Israeli democracy is stronger and more
adaptable to changes, than most democracies in the “west”.
In America you have DEM and REP. That’s all, for years and years and years.
Look how many new parties you got in Israel, in the past 20 years.
Each of them rose, when there was a need to change, and disappeared when
this changed was achieved.
This “reshaping” and adaptation, is a sign of strength, not weakness.

I don’t think that most Israeli MP’s are corrupt. That’s a myth.

2) About Olmert and Sharon, and the “disengagement” :
Both of them talked about it BEFORE Hamas took control over Gaza.
(Sharon, in 2005; Olmert, during Kadima campaign of 2006).
But after Hamas taking of Gaza, how can you continue and talk about
disengagement ? So, it wasn’t that they changed their promises, but
the reality changed. And with it, Israelis (me included) moved to the
right. Blame Hamas and HZB for that.

July 30th, 2009, 11:56 pm


norman said:

Hi Jad,

Syria is moving in the right direction , that movement is slower than what you , I and others like but it is still moving in the right direction , what makes that movement slow is custom, habits , religion and the fear of change and the lack of faith in government ,

Most of the problems and the mistakes that we see in Syria are a result of lack of knowledge not because of intentional desire to ruin the country or the lives of the people ,

What do you all think of this , apparently president Obama is renewing the sanction,
I think Syria should move slowly on the US track and wait for deeds from the US not just words .

Obama extends Syria sanctions (AFP)

31 July 2009 WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama Thursday extended sanctions against Syrian or pro-Syrian personalities for provoking instability in neighboring Lebanon, despite

some positive recent signs from Damascus, the White House said.

“In the past six months, the United States has used dialogue with the Syrian government to address concerns and identify areas of mutual interest, including support for Lebanese sovereignty,” Obama said in a statement.

He said there have been “some positive developments in the past year, including the establishment of diplomatic relations and an exchange of ambassadors between Lebanon and Syria.”

But he said “the actions of certain persons continue to contribute to political and economic instability in Lebanon and the region and constitute a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

As a result, he said, he decided to extend for one year sanctions decreed August 1, 2007 by former president George W. Bush who froze the assets of individuals accused of undermining Lebanon’s sovereignty on Syria’s behalf.

The United States has inflicted a whole series of sanctions against Syria, its chief adversary in the region along with Iran, which is allied with Damascus.

Since coming to office, Obama has moved cautiously to improve relations with Syria, mindful that it plays or could play an influential role in the region, whether in Lebanon, Iraq or in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Obama administration recently eased trade sanctions against Syria in one recent gesture toward Damascus.

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July 31st, 2009, 3:06 am


norman said:

this is interesting,

Syria’s cautious approach
By Marwan Al Kabalan, Special to Gulf News
Published: July 30, 2009, 22:31

During his latest visit to Damascus, US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell realised that the key obstacle that hinders the resumption of peace talks between Syria and Israel is the lack of trust.

Syria is almost certain that the government of Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu is not interested in peace but in a process.

Tel Aviv’s key objective, Damascus believes, is to alter the balance of power in the region by sowing seeds of distrust between Syria and its key regional ally, Iran.

Israel has not denied that this is precisely what it seeks. In fact, several Israeli officials have in recent months admitted that their hope of nudging Syria away from Iran is what had induced them to resume peace talks with the latter.

Israeli Ambassador to Washington Sallai Meridor was very open in this regard. “By far, the first reason to engage with the Syrians is to explore whether there is a chance for a strategic U-turn, and to have them separated from their special relationship with Iran,” the ambassador was quoted as saying.

Meridor has not revealed a state secret – Syrians have always suspected that the Israelis were not interested in peace per se, but in breaking up their alliance with Iran.

This explains Syria’s cautious attitude towards US efforts to resume peace negotiations and its rejection of a Russian proposal to convene an international peace conference in Moscow.

It is also believed that the open attitude adopted by Europe and the US towards Syria is intended to achieve the same aim.

Scores of high-level Western delegations sought in Damascus to explore the possibility of weaning Syria away from Iran, as a first step towards dealing with the latter’s nuclear programme.

They tried to supplement Israel’s efforts by providing incentives to convince the Syrians to distance themselves from Tehran.

In recent months, analysts have noticed that Damascus has been doing a lot of things differently: talking to the Obama administration, offering further cooperation to stabilise Iraq and support the Al Maliki government, mediating between Fatah and Hamas, working with the French and the Saudis to help the Lebanese parties to resolve their differences, and generally emphasising the pragmatic aspect of its foreign policy.

When Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua’allem was in London last week, he even offered to help resolve the standoff between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme.

Syria has also been developing its bilateral relations with Turkey, a key Western ally, in an unprecedented way. It is believed that trade between Damascus and Ankara far exceeded that with Tehran in 2008.

Analysts believe that all of this is bound to affect Syrian-Iranian relations, as well as the way Tehran is doing business in the region.

Without Syria’s support, the Iranians will not be able to win influence in Lebanon and Palestine and the legitimacy of their involvement in Iraq will be called into question.

Inside and outside the region, there is much speculation that Syria is about to ditch its alliance with Iran. Earlier this year, a senior Syrian official, known for his close ties with the Syrian Foreign Ministry, was quoted as saying that Syria “is willing to break free from the Iranians as soon as it gets what it wants.

The alliance between Damascus and Tehran can change if the Golan Heights are returned to Syria”. The official added: “If the region heads towards peace, other side issues can be tackled as well.”

Over the past few months, the Obama administration has been trying to find an alternative political course that would wean Damascus away from its Iranian connection.

Yet, US officials “have no illusions”, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently. All they “want is to weaken the existing alliance between the two countries and replace it with normal relations”.

However, Syria is in no hurry to make such a fundamental change. It has so far been reluctant to give any sign that its relations with Iran are set to change, fearing that its demands (i.e. recovering the Golan Heights) will be ignored if its alliance with Tehran is broken too soon.

As a result of past experiences, including the Madrid peace conference, Syria has learnt that one should not take anything for granted, particularly when dealing with the Israelis.

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at the faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.

July 31st, 2009, 3:27 am


jad said:

Dear Norman,
I agree that the process is extremely slow, however, it shouldn’t be.

“lack of faith in government”
I personally have no faith whatsoever in Outri’s government, they all are bunch of losers.

“result of lack of knowledge not because of intentional desire to ruin the country”
I only care about the results, if a careless driver hit my kid and kill him, does that make him less criminal or make my kid less dead? NO, “intentionally” or “lack of knowledge” doesn’t help the outcome and shouldn’t be used as an excuse because both are unacceptable, and both are curable if we want to. RIGHT?

July 31st, 2009, 4:04 pm


norman said:

Jad ,

I understand your frustration ,

what i think Syria needs is independence from government doing things and not able to do them well and change to people doing for themselves , their families and their comunity via charitable work and volunteerism , waiting for the government to get the streets clean will take forever, communities should work together to do that , they do not pay enough taxes for the government to do everything for them , comunty hospitals should be funded through non profit and charitable foundations and these donations should tax deductible people who live in Homs for example should work together to have the best technology available for everybody to use .

August 1st, 2009, 7:55 pm


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