News Round Up (12 April 2009)

Easter in Damascus - Parade from Bab Touma to Bab Sharqi by John Wreford

Easter in Damascus - Parade from Bab Touma to Bab Sharqi by John Wreford

So much for Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution…” by Qifa Nabki, who discusses Michael Young

Edging in from the cold?
Apr 9, 2009 by Michael Petrou – Canada’s only national weekly current affairs magazine.

Edging in from the cold? George W. Bush never included Syria on his list of countries making up what he described as an “Axis of Evil,” but it was clear that he considered the regime of Bashar al-Assad a security threat that needed to be isolated and punished. In April 2002, shortly after his Axis speech and at a time when the United States still seemed willing and able to take down hostile regimes, Bush said the time had come “for Syria to decide which side of the war against terror it is on.” He later accused Syria of sponsoring Palestinian terror groups, assassinating politicians in Lebanon, and doing little to prevent jihadists from crossing its border with Iraq to attack American troops there. Bush pulled the U.S. ambassador out of Syria in 2005. He imposed wide-ranging sanctions on the country. And in October 2008, as one of his last major acts while still in office, he approved a helicopter raid on a Syrian village near the Iraq border where a senior al-Qaeda operative was purportedly sheltering.

Now, only three months into his presidency, Barack Obama has radically reversed his predecessor’s policy of isolating Syria and is instead reaching out to Assad as part of a broader U.S. policy of engaging with America’s enemies, including Iran. In March, the United States sent two senior envoys—State Department official Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council—to Syria for talks. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, has been received at the State Department after being shunned for years. And a State Department spokesman said Syria can play “a positive role in the region by trying to help bring peace and stability to the Middle East.”

Assad, for his part, says he would like to meet Obama and is open to resuming indirect peace talks with Israel, which were suspended during the war in Gaza. He’s sat for a series of interviews with Western newspapers. A photo of one such interview, helpfully made available by the Syrian government press office, depicts Assad rocking back casually, a warm and delighted smile on his lips. The image is the Middle Eastern dictator’s equivalent of a sweater vest, and the message is the same: trust me.

Part of this apparent thaw between Washington and Damascus is driven by necessity. The peace talks Israel opened with Syria in 2007 made America’s cold shoulder policy less tenable. But there’s more to it than that. American policy-makers see Syria as a lever that just might readjust the balance of power in the Middle East by weakening Iran and undermining Israel’s enemies. Syria is Iran’s primary ally and gives Iran a foothold on Israel’s doorstep through Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Peeling Syria away from Iran would help isolate Iran, a regime Israel considers a mortal threat, and would cut off support to militias with which Israel has fought three wars in the last three years.

“The ultimate goal is to change Syria’s behaviour on a variety of issues—on its interference in Lebanese internal affairs, on its support for Palestinian terrorist groups that oppose the Palestinian Authority, on, most importantly, acting as a land bridge between Iran and Hezbollah, where Hezbollah gets all its arms,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with Maclean’s. “Those are the ultimate United States goals, and there is a view that this really requires a kind of strategic reorientation on the part of the Syrian regime, away from Iran and Hezbollah and toward the West.”

These were America’s goals when Bush was president as well. In fact, as a deputy national security adviser to the former president, Abrams played an important roll in shaping this strategy. But at the time, Bush believed Syria could be muscled into co-operation, and he probably nursed a faint hope that the regime might be overthrown outright. Looking back at this policy today, Abrams says the United States succeeded in isolating Syria for a time, but accomplished little strategically. “In the narrowest sense, the efforts to isolate them succeeded,” he says. “If you go more deeply than that and say, ‘Well, that’s fine, but what did that achieve? Did you get them through that policy to change their conduct?’ Then the answer is no.”

According to Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, Obama is now engaging Syria because Bush’s efforts to isolate and confront the regime failed. “George Bush had run his non-engagement policy into the ground,” he says. “Non-engagement wasn’t working. We’ve got to go back to realism.” Landis cautions that while realism suggests the United States should talk to Syria, it’s not realistic to expect Syria to turn away from Iran. Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, has told him as much. Syria and Iran share too many interests—in Lebanon, in Iraq, and regarding Kurdish minorities in both their countries.

Similarly, Landis says, Syria won’t sever ties with Hezbollah. The militia and political movement affords it substantial influence in Lebanon, a country Syria considers part of its sphere of influence (if not a de facto province), and one that it needs as a gateway to the wider world. The drive from Damascus to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea is a short one through Lebanon. Without this outlet, the Syrian capital is snookered behind Lebanon’s coastal strip.

Magnus Norell, a specialist on Hezbollah and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, agrees that Syria is unlikely to be “flipped,” or made to turn against Hezbollah. Lebanon is simply too important to Damascus. He thinks the most that can be hoped for is that Syria reins in some of the more radical Palestinian organizations it arms and sponsors, including Hamas. Landis believes something similar is possible with Hezbollah. Syria won’t cut its ties to the movement, but perhaps it will try to persuade Hezbollah that it is not in its best interests to go to war with Israel. These would be positive steps, but they hardly constitute a strategic realignment of the Middle East.

Why, then, is President Obama investing energy and political capital reaching out to Syria? Why is Israel open to talking to Damascus, even as it fights wars with Syria’s proxy militias? It is a measure of just how intractable many of the conflicts in the Middle East are that the one between Israel and Syria—despite the problems outlined above—arguably remains the easiest to solve. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require painstaking negotiations about borders, degrees of sovereignty, and refugees. Lebanon will not make peace with Israel until Syria does, and the situation is complicated by the fact that it is Hezbollah, not the Lebanese government, that controls Lebanon’s border with Israel.

The outlines of an agreement between Israel and Syria are comparatively more straightforward. They hinge on the Golan Heights, which Syria lost during the Six Day War of 1967. The fact that the current frontier between Israel and Syria is quiet leads many in Israel to think they could safely withdraw from the Golan without facing the rocket attacks that marked their withdrawals from both southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Twice before, in 1996 and 2000, the two countries have come close to a deal.

“There have always been and there are now people in the Israeli military who think this is something that is quite attractive to look at,” says Elliott Abrams. “Because if there were a deal with Syria,…..

The daily star:

They don’t want to face the prospect of having to deliver these to an ‘opposition’ controlled Parliament and government….. “David Hale said that most of the new arms, including 41 howitzers, 12 Zodiac boats, 12 Raven air vehicles, one Cessna and 10 M60s, would be delivered in May and April…..In addition, it reported that Hale said the US would not deal with Hizbullah regardless of the parliamentary poll results. …..Concern in Lebanon has grown following statements by US State Department officials that US assistance to Lebanon will be reevaluated after the June 7 elections, which will decide who runs the next government. But officials in Washington reaffirmed their commitment to boost the LAF…”

Syrian International Bank for Trade Jumps 15% in Damascus Debut
2009-04-06 By Nadim Issa

April 6 (Bloomberg) — International Bank for Trade & Finance surged 15 percent as it traded for the first time on the Syrian bourse. United Group JSC and Arab Bank-Syria also gained.

IBTF, a Damascus-based lender that is 49 percent owned by Jordan’s Housing Bank for Trade & Finance, listed shares last week. They closed at 977.5 Syrian pounds ($20.75) today. The closing price will serve as the so-called reference price, Omar Ghraoui, chief operating officer at Bemo Saudi Fransi Finance, said today by phone from Damascus.

The Damascus Securities Exchange, open twice a week, started trading shares March 10 and has since struggled to attract liquidity. Once a reference price is set shares can fluctuate as much as 2 percent per trading day. The fluctuation limit is impeding trading and the brokerages are hoping the bourse will change the regulation, Ghraoui said last month.

“The same problem is occurring every trading session where we are seeing lots of buy orders but not enough sell orders,” Ghraoui said.

United Group added 1.9 percent to 214.5 pounds today, while Arab Bank-Syria rose 2 percent to 878 pounds. The remaining four listed companies on the bourse did not trade. The shares of Al-Ahliah Vegetable Oil Co. are expected to be listed “very shortly,” Ghraoui said.

Damascus Securities Exchange Posts Record Daily Trading Value
2009-04-09 11:51:08.618 GMT

By Nadim Issa
April 9 (Bloomberg) — The Damascus Securities Exchange traded a record 2.53 million Syrian pounds ($54,150) worth of shares today, the most since the bourse opened on March 10. More investors are opening accounts with brokers and trading was led by demand for Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi stock, said Sufian Haikal, operating manager at Cham Capital LLC, a Damascus-based brokerage company, by phone today. Seven stocks are listed on the exchange including Bank of Syria & Overseas, Bank Audi-Syria, International Bank for Trade & Finance, Arab Bank-Syria, United Group JSC, Al-Ahliah for Transport and Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi.

Syriatel Mobile Telecom: “For Syria there are ongoing negotiations…and we will have a presence (there) in the near future,” Barrak said. Kuwait’s Mobile Telecommunications Co. plans to spend up to $5 billion on new acquisitions by 2011.

Syria’s Mufti Outlaws Smoking, Water Pipes, Al-Hayat Reports
By Massoud A. Derhally

April 6 (Bloomberg) — Syria’s highest authority on Islamic law has banned cigarette and water-pipe smoking, Al-Hayat reported. Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun also banned the purchase and sale of tobacco products and renting shops to retailers that sell tobacco, the Saudi-owned newspaper reported. Smokers in Syria spend $600 million a year on tobacco, or about 8 percent of their income each to purchase 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) to 6 kilograms of cigarettes each, the newspaper reported, citing Syria’s General Organization for Tobacco. As many as 15 percent of Syria’s 23 million people smoke, Al-Hayat said, citing a study by the organization.

Interview with Italian Foregn Minister Frattini, “Everyone wants to talk with Bashar el Assad. ISRIA (Thanks to “friday-lunch-club” )

“…Everyone wants to talk with Bashar el Assad. “Mrs. Clinton and Senator Kerry told me that when we met”, Frattini confirmed. After France legitimised the Syrian Rais during last year’s July 14th festivities, efforts to open up to Damascus have multiplied. Barak Obama’s arrival in the White House has strengthened that strategy, extending it to include Iran, becoming a key interlocutor in the solution to the Afghan question; so much so that the State Department has expressed its desire to participate “completely” in all negotiations on Teheran’s nuclear programme (Iran’s perennial coldness is cause for concern, as witnessed yesterday with the inauguration of its first plant for the production of nuclear fuel in Isfahan). Does Syria deserve so much legitimacy? Frattini is cautious, but optimistic. “There are three elements that give us cause for hope”, he explains, “Assad’s willingness to dialogue with Israel; his pressure on the Arab League to avoid ruptures with Israel; and the beginning of normalisation with Lebanon”. Words, yes, statements, but “before this there weren’t even those”. The most visible signs regard Lebanon: the announcement of a Syrian diplomatic mission in Beirut, “even though there is no ambassador yet”, the minister specifies, and Assad’s “new pragmatism”. And yet the Lebanese are worried: Hezbollah has veto rights in the government and its power is increasingly solid —especially its military power. “Syria has to do more”, Frattini admits, “It has clarify its borders with Lebanon and control weapons trafficking southward to the Israeli border”, where our troops are engaged on the UNIFIL mission….”

Hezbollah’s political evolution
Mohanad Hage Ali
Guardian, Friday 10 April 2009

The democratisation of the party and its engagement in public life should be an example to other militant Islamic groups

Hezbollah – the party of God, in Arabic – was notorious throughout the 1980s for being an extremist militant organisation involved in a string of kidnappings targeting westerners in the 1980s. But since the early 1990s, the Lebanese Shia fundamentalist group has slowly engaged in the Lebanese post-civil war political process, while retaining its military wing, the Islamic Resistance, to fight Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon.

Last Week, the party’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announced its candidates for June’s parliamentary elections. In his slate are three new candidates, including an academic, Ali Fayyad, a PhD holder who runs the party’s think tank, and Nawaf al-Musawi, a French-educated old guard who runs Hezbollah’s external relations.

This “intellectual” slate, as one Lebanese columnist dubbed it, marked yet another change in Hezbollah’s political evolution from a secluded shadowy organisation into a larger party concerned with its public image……

SYRIA: List of top 100 businessmen signals another turning point – LA times

For the Arabic see

……Gaining access to the financial records of Syria’s most powerful men constitutes a major feat of investigative journalism.

“[The list] took nearly a year to compile,” Al-Iqtisadi executive editor Hamoud Mahmoud told “It took a lot of research to get all the information, which is being published for the first time.”

The list includes short biographies of 100 businessmen from 39 families, along with indicators of their wealth, such as the number of companies in their name and the estimated value of their investments in Syria and abroad.

Most of the individuals on the list made their fortunes in manufacturing, trade and car sales.

“The magazine tried, via the Iqtisadi100, to give the major businessmen their rightful recognition and increase transparency in the business sector, which carries the Syrian economy towards a new economy,” Mahmoud said.

Still, there are holes.

Mahmoud told and confirmed to Babylon & Beyond that it was nearly impossible to get exact numbers on many wealth indicators because the Ministry of Finance refused to share information from their own list of the largest taxpayers in Syria based on an agreement between the businessmen and the ministry.

“Some of [the businessmen] did not even want to tell us how many people they employed, because they were not paying taxes on them,” Mahmoud told Babylon & Beyond.

Despite the difficulties he and his news team encountered, Mahmoud is optimistic about Syria’s new direction. “In the last few years, they have amended the tax laws and issued new ones” holding businessmen more accountable, he said.

Israel is profiting from Egypt-Hezbollah quarrel – Haaretz “friday-lunch-club”)

“…Nasrallah’s address once again highlights his willingness to gamble, to the point of direct conflict between his organization and the country until recently considered the leader of the Arab world. Nasrallah has been insulting Mubarak since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah found out that Cairo was pressuring the Olmert government to continue its military attack on Hezbollah. The Egyptian response, for now, is somewhat hesitant, despite the firm steps it has taken on the ground. The most senior official to mention the affair as of last night has been a representative of the general prosecution in Cairo. So far, only anonymous officials have been quoted, warning that Mubarak would not allow Hezbollah to turn his country into a second Lebanon. Weekend editorials in the Egyptian press called Nasrallah an “Iranian agent.” In terms of practical steps, the past two days have seen reports of the uncovering of a rocket factory in Egyptian Rafah, the arrest of smugglers on the Israeli border and the capture of a man attempting to smuggle $2 million to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. …

Israel, which can regard the events with some satisfaction, is keeping a low profile. Hezbollah’s penetration into Egypt, now facing a close race for Mubarak’s successor, leaves no doubt as to Iran’s intentions. This may result in increased security coordination between Israel and Egypt against arms smuggling into the Strip, and will apparently also dictate Cairo’s continued cool stance toward Gaza.”

Israel: the age of permanent war? By Tom Ricks in FP

Is the west thwarting Arab plans for reform?
(Thanks to Massoud Derhally)
By David Gardner, Photomontage by Charlie Bibby
The Financial Times – April 10 2009

….The minute the Brothers began to develop an agenda independently from the Palace, however, King Hussein changed the rules, enacting new electoral laws to guarantee majorities in parliament of Bedouin loyalists and tribal grandees. As the peace Jordan signed with Israel in 1994 grew ever more unpopular, moreover, so the king rolled back his democratic reforms, limiting change to largely meaningless changes of government (he ran through 56 prime ministers in 46 years).

This episode nonetheless remains important, and transcends Jordan. King Hussein’s volte face meant an opportunity was lost to develop new forms of legitimacy – democratic legitimacy – by one of the few Arab leaders who had any reserves of this precious commodity left. Yet in the following two decades, there would be repeated attempts – from Khatami’s Iran to post-Saddam Iraq, from Erdogan’s Turkey to King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia – either to synthesise Islam and democracy or tilt towards forms of modernity the region’s religious heritage could sustain.

The Islam and modernity debate, which accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman empire after the first World War, has emerged again nearly a century later. But there is an important difference. Few Muslims now invest much hope in the democratic western powers (essentially the US, Britain and France) that back the rulers who oppress them, even if, against the odds, they still admire “western” values, science and culture. There is no endemic or intrinsic conflict between Christians and Muslims. Rather, the root of the problem is that a majority of Muslims is convinced that the west – interested only in a stability based on regional strongmen, the security of Israel and cheap oil – is engaged in a war against Islam and is bent on denying them the freedoms it claims for itself….

Democracy, in this unpromising context, could open a long period of illiberal politics that may be inimical to stability. Yet the west’s only realistic choice is to foster, or at least not actively obstruct, the right of Arabs to decide their own future, in whatever form they wish. That form will be heavily influenced by Islamism. Yet the west should be able to see the similarities between Islamism (or Islamic revivalism) and 19th-century nationalism in Europe. Both started as a sort of forced march into the future and then they detoured in sinister and destructive ways: fascism then and the jihadi cult of death now. Any sane policy would be devoted to preventing the evolution of a lethal form of radical Islam, in no small part by finding space for a thoughtful Islamism to emerge.

That is no longer easy. The freedom agenda proclaimed by George W. Bush has been discredited. Yet the insight brought to the west so violently by al-Qaeda on September 11 2001 and subsequently – that tyranny breeds terrorism and instability, infantilises politics and holds back development – is no less valid. Not the least of the challenges facing Barack Obama is to rescue that insight before it is too late….. [this is an excellent article and should be read completely.]

Comments (1)

Alex said:

Imad Moustapha’s interview on CNN this week

April 13th, 2009, 7:09 am


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