News Round up (20 January 2010)

Britons are descended from farmers who left Iraq and Syria 10,000 years ago, study reveals
2010-01-20, Daily Mail (GB)
By David Derbyshire

Most Britons are direct descendants of farmers who left modern day Iraq and Syria 10,000 years ago, a new study has shown. After studying the DNA of more than 2,000 men …

…Syrians have expressed fear that their British cousins may return seeking to recover lost lands…

Mitchell meets with Assad, says Syria central to peace process

Syria economy: Gear shift

The selection of Lamiya Assi as economy and trade minister marks a further advancement for the role of women in the Syrian government—she will bring the
number of female cabinet ministers to three—and her recent experience as ambassador to Malaysia, a dynamic Asian economy, seems to suggest that she could bring some innovative ideas to Syria’s economic policy discussions. However, her promotion has come amid ructions among policymakers about the direction and the implementation of economic reforms that have been described as involving a shift to a “social market” model from a predominantly state socialist system.

Ms Assi’s antecedents indicate that her economic approach lies on the more statist and conservative end of the spectrum—she worked as a deputy to the finance minister, Mohammed al-Hussein, a Baath party stalwart, prior to her diplomatic appointment in 2004. Her Malaysian connection could also signify a desire on the part of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to focus on securing investment from Asia, having failed to persuade the Obama administration to lift US sanctions.

Criticism not encouraged

Mr Assad announced the appointment of Ms Assi on January 18th, a week after he had terminated the contract of Tayseer al-Reddawi as head of the State Planning Commission (SPC), a body that has been the driving force behind the reorientation of the Syrian economy towards a market-based system and which is currently drafting a new five-year plan to run from 2011. The decision was thought to reflect the growing animosity between Mr Reddawi and the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari, who headed the SPC until 2007 and was the architect of the current five-year plan. Mr Dardari has been a forthright advocate of economic liberalisation, which has frequently put him at odds with more economically conservative figures, including Mr Hussein, the powerful finance minister. Mr Reddawi has made a number of sharp criticisms of the state of the Syrian economy, most recently arguing at a seminar in Damascus that consumption, rather than investment, had become the main engine of growth, and that the benefits of that growth had accrued disproportionately to a small minority whose consumption patterns tended to drive up imports and whose savings preferences accentuated capital flight. These remarks were taken by some as an attack on Mr Dardari’s record, although they could also be interpreted as being directed at the privileges enjoyed by Syria’s business elite by virtue of their close ties to the president. It has also been suggested that Mr Assad and Mr Dardari had developed misgivings about how effective Mr Reddawi was in persuading foreign investors, financiers and aid donors of the potential of the Syrian economy. Following Mr Reddawi’s dismissal the prime minister, Naji al-Otari, put Mr Dardari in charge of the SPC on an acting basis. This arrangement did not last long, as Mr Assad has now appointed Amer Lotfi, the outgoing minister of economy and trade, to head the SPC. Mr Lotfi had been in his post since 2004, and previously taught economics at Aleppo University as well as being in charge of Baath party activities there. He did not make a great impact as a minister, as most of the key policy initiatives over the past five years were taken by Mr Hussein, Mr Dardari or by Adib Mayaleh, the governor of the Central Bank of Syria—these have included cuts to tax rates, the introduction of a new investment law, the launch of a stockmarket, cuts in energy subsidies, pegging the exchange rate to the SDR and allowing private banks to lend in foreign currency.

Unfinished business

The government has enacted reforms to the financial structure of public-sector enterprises—aimed at giving their management more autonomy—but has so far eschewed privatisation. Other aspects of policy that have been marking time include plans to introduce value-added tax (VAT) and the award of a license to a third mobile-phone operator. Mr Dardari had identified VAT as a critical element in the current five-year plan, in light of the chronic decline in Syria’s oil production, and had set 2008 as the year in which it was to be introduced. However, implementation is in the hands of the finance minister, who has not shown any great sense of urgency on the VAT question. Further development of the telecoms and technology sector has been awaiting the passage of a new sector law that would allow for the current system of build-operate-transfer (BOT) contracts to be superseded by a licence-based system, with an independent regulator. This would require a restructuring of the existing BOT contracts—one of which is held by a business controlled by the president’s cousin—which have proved to be highly advantageous to their holders, while delivering important revenue into the finance ministry’s coffers.

On balance, the changes that have been made since the removal of Mr Reddawi indicate that Mr Assad is content to continue with a cautious approach to economic reform, with public debate about policy options and economic performance kept to a minimum.

Egypt riled by Syria’s increasing role in the region
By Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz Correspondent

What happened to the reconciliation between Syria and Egypt supposedly in the works? There had been widespread speculation in the Arab media in anticipation of the Syrian-Saudi summit meeting last Wednesday, that the Egyptian president would go to Riyadh for the Syrian-Saudi summit meeting last Wednesday, to ease the four years of bad blood (starting from the Second Lebanon War) between the two.

The rift in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia had lasted longer than that: five years. It began after the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, and ended only last October when Saudi King Abdullah mended ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad and agreed to visit Damascus.

Since then, Abdullah has been trying to persuade Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to bury the hatchet with Assad, but has been unsuccessful thus far.

As the summit approached, it seemed as if the warring sides would shake hands in the Saudi capital, but then Mubarak learned that on the eve of his departure, Assad had held a telephone conversation with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and explained to him that “Egypt would have no choice but to recognize that opposition (such as that espoused by Hamas and Hezbollah) is the only way to get things done.”

That was enough for Mubarak to cancel his trip to Riyadh…..

The Egyptians are scrutinizing Assad’s moves warily in other arenas as well. His close relations with Turkey, declarations about establishing an Iran-Syria-Iraq-Turkey axis, strengthening of ties between Syria and Europe, particularly France, Assad’s control of Hamas’ decisions about Palestinian reconciliation, and the “historic reconciliation” with Lebanon which removed the threat of an international commission of inquiry into the murder of Hariri have complicated matters in Mubarak’s eyes.

Instead of Syria being isolated, Egypt may find itself pushed to the side. ….

Egypt also returned empty handed from a recent trip to Washington. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and the head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, returned some two weeks ago from the American capital without succeeding in persuading the administration there to demand a total freeze of construction in the Israeli settlements.

Saudi-Syria ties warm up despite Iran’s chill
Bilal Saab, Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, January 27, 2010


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad traveled to Riyadh on 13 January 2010 and held talks with Saudi King Abdullah and other senior Saudi officials for three days. The Syrian-Saudi summit, which focused on Iran and Yemen, was the latest in a series of meetings aimed at boosting relations between the two countries. In October 2009, the two leaders met in Damascus where they agreed to encourage their allies in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories to settle their political disagreements peacefully….

Iran and Yemen

Iran and Yemen dominated the conversation at this summit. Abdullah voiced Saudi concerns over Iran’s alleged involvement in the Huthi insurgency against Saudi forces and the Yemeni government. Riyadh has privately accused Tehran of arming and financing the Huthis, while Tehran has criticised Saudi military action against the rebels, calling it “state terrorism”.

United States intelligence officials believe that a Saudi-Iranian proxy war is taking place in Yemen. To bolster its position against Iran, Saudi Arabia is aligning itself with Syria, Iran’s main regional ally. However, currently there is very little that Syria can offer Saudi Arabia with regard to the issues in Yemen, other than to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran….


While Syria and Saudi Arabia seem to have reconciled their bitter dispute over Hariri’s murder, they still have a number of issues to resolve. While the tactical understanding over Lebanon will defuse tension in Beirut and contribute to regional stability, these short-term deals will be insufficient to drastically change the strategic landscape of the region. As long as Syria values its partnership with Iran more than its relationship with Saudi Arabia, any talk of a transforming of relations between Damascus and Riyadh cannot be taken seriously.

Full text of this article requires subscription to Jane’s Information Group.

Aluf Benn in Haaretz – Thanks FLC

“… No Israeli politician matches his steps to the political goings-on in the U.S. as much as Netanyahu. He dragged out negotiations over the settlement freeze and then decided it would last for 10 months and end in September – just in time for U.S. Congressional elections in which Democrats are expected to suffer heavy losses.

Netanyahu understood he must withstand the pressure until his right-wing supporters recapture a position of power on Capitol Hill and work to rein in the White House’s political activities. The election in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in America, will from this moment on be a burden for Obama.

Proponents of the peace process will view this as a missed opportunity for Obama, who spent his first year in office on fruitless diplomatic moves that failed to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians. From now on, it will be harder for Obama. Congressional support is essential to the political process and in the current political atmosphere in the U.S. – in which the parties are especially polarized – Netanyahu can rely on Republican support to thwart pressure on Israel.

If Obama’s popularity continues to dive and the Republicans recapture at least one of the houses of Congress in November, Netanyahu and his partners will be able to breathe deep and continue expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

Syria’s Mufti tells U.S. scholars that Islam commands its followers to protect Judaism.

“If the Prophet Mohammed had asked me to deem Christians or Jews heretics, I would have deemed Mohammed himself a heretic,” Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, the Mufti of Syria, was quoted as telling a delegation of American academics visiting Damascus.

Hassoun, the leader of Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community, also told the delegates that Islam was a religion of peace, adding: “If Mohammed had commanded us to kill people, I would have told him he was not a prophet.”

Religious wars were the result of politics infiltrating systems of faith, he said, asking:

“Was Moses of Middle Eastern or European descent? Was Jesus a Protestant or a Catholic? Was Mohammed Shi’ite or Sunni?” According to the Mufti, the conflict between Israel and its Arabs neighbors has nothing to do with an Islamic war against Judaism.

“Before you got American citizenship, and I got Syrian citizenship, we were all brothers under the dome of God,” he said. Jews had once lived in Syria peacefully and with fair treatment, he added, explaining that his own grandfather had a Jewish partner. “Jews lived in Syria for years and they still have a role in Syrian society,” he said

Jerusalem Post: The peace process will resume, but why?

Israeli-Palestinian final status talks will be renewed because the international community -particularly the United States but also the moderate Arab states – wants this to happen. Probably sooner rather than later a formula will be found for sitting the two sides’ negotiating teams down with US envoy George Mitchell.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, currently the reluctant partner, will bow to the American and Arab will once he has extracted maximum preliminary concessions from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. And Netanyahu obviously concluded some time ago that entering final status negotiations was the best way to avoid isolation: to maintain close Israeli-American strategic coordination regarding Iran as well as a modicum of coordination with Egypt and the moderateArab bloc while keeping most of the Israeli public behind him.

The real question should not be whether the talks will be renewed, but rather, why? Why do the US, Egypt and Saudi Arabia want negotiations to resume when they are doomed to failure and when failure, meaning a new crisis, could significantly worsen the situation? Why insist onnegotiations rather than face up to the strategic realities?

THE FIRST and most obvious of these is the three-state reality. There is little near-term prospect that Abbas will succeed in bringing Gaza and Hamas back into the fold of a single Palestinian partner for Israel. Hence he can negotiate only on behalf of the West Bank. But Gaza won’t go away: Hamas can easily sabotage an Abbas-Netanyahu peace process with a few sustained rocket barrages, while neither Egypt nor Israel appears to have a viable strategy for dealing with it.

The second reality is that, when he does negotiate, Abbas is certain to table a set of demands on issues like refugees, Jerusalem and borders that Netanyahu cannot and will not meet. …

The third reality is that the Palestinians are currently embarked on their most, indeed only, successful state-building enterprise since the Oslo process began in 1993, and it is largely a unilateral process: building, with international help, security, economic and governance institutions on theWest Bank. ….

Iraqi, Syrian tensions rise over Iraqi refugees in Syria
Jan 20, 2010

Damascus/Cairo – Iraq and Syria are in a public disagreement about the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria – with Iraq reporting 206,000 people while Syria maintained a figure of 1.5 million, regional daily Al-Hayat reported Wednesday.

Iraqi Minister of Displacement and Migration Abdelsamad Rahman Sultan said: ‘The latest statistics by the ministry indicate that there are only 206,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria,’ in a statement released by the government on Tuesday, but reported Wednesday.

The minister’s statement was a response to Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Meqdad’s earlier announcement that there are over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Al Meqdad accused the Iraqi government of neglecting to provide assistance to the refugees in Syria on Monday.

‘Despite its large resources, the Iraqi government has only contributed 15 million US dollars to the support of its citizens in Syria,’ Al Meqdad said.

He also stated that relations between the two countries were unlikely to improve until Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki’s government is replaced with one more friendly to Damascus.

Iraqi parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 7.

The Iraqi National Accord, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said the Iraqi government was ‘attempting to nullify the votes of refugees in Syria or tamper with them,’ Al Hayat reported.

Read more:

Comments (2)

norman said:

Shai ,

I don’t know if you remember when i mentioned that i tested my DNA and foud that i have more relative in England than in Syria , The article above might explain the reason ,

January 21st, 2010, 2:15 am


norman said:

U.S. seeks progress on Syria-Israel deal: George Mitchell

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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 2:49 PM

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – A U.S. official discussed reviving peace talks between Israel and Syria on Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who said Israel had to “declare frankly” it wants peace.

George Mitchell, President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, said the U.S. sought what he described as comprehensive Middle East peace that included a deal between Syria and Israel and the normalization of relations between the two foes.

“Syria, certainly, has an important role to play in all of these efforts… and that was the topic of our discussion today,” Mitchell said in a brief statement.

He said he looked “forward to making tangible progress on our efforts toward peace and on the bilateral relations between the United States and Syria”.

Ties between Syria and the United States improved after President Barack Obama took office and Mitchell met Assad twice last year. Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad, a leading figure in Syrian foreign policy, also visited Washington.

Differences, however, persisted.

Damascus has not hidden its frustration with the pace of ties with Washington. Syrian officials have said Obama should lift sanctions first imposed in 2004 for its support of militant groups and exert pressure on Israel to renew the peace talks.

The indirect talks, which were mediated by Turkey, broke down during the Israeli offensive on Gaza a year ago without defining the boundary of the Golan Heights, the Syrian plateau that Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East War.

The official Syrian news agency said Assad told Mitchell that Turkey had an “important role” to play in reviving the talks and Israel had to “declare frankly” that it wants peace.

Syria improved its ties with Turkey as tension mounted between Ankara and Israel during the past few months, which made Israeli officials wary of Turkey resuming a mediation role.

Syria wants an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the whole of the Golan based on a U.N. resolution stating the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. Israel said it was willing to resume the talks without preconditions.

Israel and its chief ally, the United States, want Syria to cool its ties with Iran as well as stop supporting the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, and help sideline them as armed players.

A Syrian source said Assad would continue to show flexibility with Washington but only up to a point.

“The late Hafez al-Assad used to say that the Americans want us to commit suicide. Bashar has limits to what he can give the United States,” the source said.

Bashar succeeded his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, months after the elder Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades, rejected a U.S.-supervised deal that did not restore what he considered as a the whole of the Golan.

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

January 21st, 2010, 3:54 am


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