News Round Up (4 August 2007)

Aug. 2 — President Bush said Thursday that the United States would freeze the property and assets of anyone trying to undermine Lebanon’s democratically elected government — a move intended as a sharp warning to Syria and its ally Hezbollah.

The announcement, in an executive order and an accompanying letter to Congress, reflects heightened concern in Washington that Syria is trying to reassert control over Lebanon. It comes a little more than a month after the administration announced that it was enacting a travel ban, barring “those who have contributed to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon,” possibly including leading Syrian intelligence officials, from entering the United States.

Taken together, the steps are an effort to ratchet up pressure on Syria at a time when the administration contends that it is helping to fuel the insurgency in Iraq, as well as creating instability in Lebanon. Mr. Bush’s order deems interference in Lebanon’s government to be an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and declares it a “national emergency.”

Administration officials say they are especially concerned that the fragile democratic government in Lebanon, headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, could splinter if the Lebanese president, Émile Lahoud, who has close ties to Syria, tries to establish an alternate government. That concern has grown in recent months, said an administration official involved in formulating the executive order.

Experts say it is unclear what effect, if any, freezing property and assets will have. Jon B. Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who visited President Assad about a month ago, said Mr. Assad and his associates were deeply concerned that the Siniora government could threaten his own.

“They are concerned that a hostile government in Lebanon will be a means to undermine the government of Syria, and they’re determined to undermine any government in Lebanon that they see as hostile,” Mr. Alterman said, adding, “I don’t think economic measures can deter people from what they regard as their strategic goals.”

Comment by JL: In the comment section of the last post, several readers remarked that the wording of this executive order was broad enough and ill-defined enough that it could easily be used to harass journalists and perhaps even bloggers. Some readers suggested this was nonsense, placing their faith in US authorities to respect freedom of speech.

I will recount a personal anecdote that reflects on this. On my return from my last two trips out of the United States, I have been stopped by Homeland Security at the exit ramp of the airplane and retained for four hours or so of interviews and security checks, while notification was sought from authorities in Washington to see if I could be released, causing me to miss my onward flights. My calling cards, contents of my wallet, and personal papers were scanned to add to my computer files. My luggage was also screened for indications of who I had met and what I had done.

Why has my name on the security-threat list? The only conclusion I could come to is that one of my many admirers in Washington had placed me there in order to amuse themselves. When I inquired how I might get my name removed from the list, I was told to have "my lawyer" make inquiries at a Washington address. My hunch is that this would be an exercise in futility even if I were to retain a lawyer. Homeland Security is under no legal obligation to release the reason for which I was replaced on the list. I will have to play the Syrian game of figuring out who I know in the security apparatuses of Washington who might have access to my files and can help to clear up the matter. Security services seem to be surprisingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Iraq, a Perilous Alliance With Former Enemies
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post
Saturday, August 4, 2007; Page A01 

U.S. commanders are offering large sums to enlist, at breakneck pace, their former enemies, handing them broad security powers in a risky effort to tame this fractious area south of Baghdad in Babil province and, literally, buy time for national reconciliation.

American generals insist they are not creating militias. In contracts with the U.S. military, the sheiks are referred to as "security contractors." Each of their "guards" will receive 70 percent of an Iraqi policeman's salary. U.S. commanders call them "concerned citizens," evoking suburban neighborhood watch groups.

But interviews with ground commanders and tribal leaders offer a window into how the United States is financing a new constellation of mostly Sunni armed groups with murky allegiances and shady pasts.

The two-week-old initiative, inspired by similar efforts underway in Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala provinces, has more than halved attacks here against American troops, from 19 a day to seven, U.S. commanders said. But in a land of sectarian fault lines and shifting tribal loyalties, the strategy raises concerns about the long-term implications of empowering groups that steadfastly oppose the Shiite-led government.

Shiite leaders fear that the United States is financing highly trained and well-armed militias that could undermine the government after American troops withdraw. Shiites worry such groups could weaken central authority and challenge democratic institutions that many would like to see take root.

U.S. generals said they vet the backgrounds of every recruit, but ground commanders here said that is all but an impossible task.

"Officially, we will not deal with those who have American blood on their hands," said Balcavage, 42. "But how do you know? You don't. There's a degree of risk involved. A lot of it is gut instinct. That's what I'm going on. They didn't teach me how to do this at West Point." 

Comment by JL: US troops are calling this policy "Rent a Cop," but its correct name is "khouah" or protection money. The Ottomans were particularly adept at paying khouah to the Arab tribes in order to keep them from raiding settled areas or the annual Hajj caravans. French and British colonial authorities did the same thing. In Syria, the French established a tribal authority, which paid subsidies to the major tribes in order to keep them from raiding. The Shaykhs were further bought into the system by giving them secure seats in the parliament. During the early independence era, Syrian authorities slowly brought this practice to a halt, but it wasn't easy. When Akram Hourani and other opposition leaders in parliament called for an end to tribal subsidies in the late 1940s, the Shaykhs brandished their side-arms which they always wore in the chamber of deputies and threatened to rise up in revolt and kill Hourani dead. Hourani wisely backed down. Today, many tribal leaders retain secure seats in the Majlis al-Shaab. The American notion that the US could ignore the power of tribes was born of foolishness and ignorance. It would seem to have little to do with democracy, but establishing a modicum of stability is a prerequisite to developing law and order, which, in turn, must precede democracy. Unfortunately, it would seem Iraq has returned to Ottoman realities.  

Nobles News, a newish Syria news site, carries the following interview with me about the the possibility of war with Israel. Although many here see a possibility, I don't. 

 لاندس: سوريا واسرائيل تستخدمان لغة التهديد بالحرب

أكد جاشوا لاندس أستاذ العلاقات الدولية في جامعة أوكلاهوما والخبير الأمريكي في شؤون الشرق الوسط أن سوريا واسرائيل لن تستفيدا من نشوب الحرب بينهما، مشيرا الى أنهما يستخدمان الآن لغة التهديد بالحرب

Roving Gastronome – Syria: The New York Times travel section  

The Syrian Academy of Gastronomy competed to have the International Academy of Gastronomy award Aleppo the annual Grand Prix for Gastronomic Culture, the second city after Paris to receive this prize.

Celebrating this important event, the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy has the honor to welcome a delegation of the International Academy of Gastronomy to Aleppo to deliver the award in September 2006.

The choice of Aleppo as Capital of Gastronomic Culture bestows on us a major responsibility to do our utmost to preserve our local gastronomic culture and heritage, of which we may be justly proud.

Syria: No Subsidence of Subsidies
Oxford Business Group
30 July 2007

Syria is to allocate $7bn in its budget for 2008 to subsidise energy, basic commodities and food supplies, further increasing the drain on the treasury at the very time the country is trying to implement reforms to ease the state out of the marketplace.

On July 23, Abdulla Al Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said the government was committed to protecting the Syrian people and their standard of living through the provision of subsidies.

Al Dardari said that the subsidies would be "distributed effectively among citizens, affirming the government's commitment to delivering support to deserving groups".

The government will also keep its promise to provide free education and health services, with funding to be made available in the 2008 budget, Al Dardari said.

If the Syrian government does follow through on its spending commitments, it will face a massive increase in its outlays in the coming year, expenditures it may find hard to support. With much of the country's agricultural industry reporting poor harvests due to drought, the key cotton and wheat sectors in particular being hard hit, export earnings and tax revenues are expected to be down this year.

The $7bn in subsidies represent a major increase in spending by the state. By comparison, the 2006 budget set aside just $500m for subsidy payments for basic foodstuffs, electricity and fuel, according to a report by the US embassy in Damascus. Analysts doubted the accuracy of these figures, believing they did not reflect the full extent of the subsidies being distributed. A US government report issued in early 2006 suggested fuel subsidies alone would amount to $1bn for the year. However, none of the estimates made at the time came close to the 2008 total announced by the deputy prime minister.

With Syria's gross domestic product currently estimated at around $38bn, the figure announced by Al Dardari represents over 20% of GDP, well up on the 15% given in an International Monetary Fund report issued in early 2006.

However, while committing the state to boosting subsidy payments, Al Dardari also flagged an overhaul of the system.

"Any new aid system will be gradual to eliminate economic and social shocks and achieve tangible improvement in living standards for the majority of Syrians," he said.  

Comments (8)

Leb Christian said:

I’m quite happy you’re on the security threat list. After all, such revisionism and apologism should not even be tolerated in a country like the United States of America.

August 4th, 2007, 3:00 pm


G said:

Security services seem to be surprisingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic.

Actually, if they were similar you would have been blown to bits in a car bomb like your friends did to Gebran Tueni, Samir Qasir, and May Chidiac.

But then again you support all that.

August 4th, 2007, 4:10 pm


JimR said:

What are one’s rights as a U.S. citizen subject to “Homeland Security” interrogations? Traditionally (as I understand it) one does not have to respond to interrogators without the presence of one’s lawyer. Can the authorities deny a U.S. citizen entry to the U.S. based on unsubstantiated suspicions, allegations, and whispering campaigns?

Are the laws that stripped Paul Robeson of his right to travel still on the books?

August 4th, 2007, 11:13 pm


George Ajjan said:


Welcome back!

Next time DHS wants to give you the standard shabby treatment, politely tell the poor sap interrogating you, before he begins, that you have been through this fruitless drill before and do not intend to undergo it again. Ask for his identification, copy down every bit of information on it, and ask for the name and details of his supervisor too. Kindly remind them whose tax dollars pay their salaries.

Your neocon “admirers” in their comfy think-tank offices are only as powerful as government employees’ fearlessness about losing their jobs for unnecessarily harrassing American citizens. So remind them who, quite literally, is boss.

August 5th, 2007, 1:55 am


Nur al-Cubicle said:

They stopped you? Well, you are in good company, I suppose. The Prince and Princess of Spain were given the 3rd degree by HS on their honeymoon as they transited through Miami. The HS goons larfed themselves silly as they opened the princess’s suitcase full of her, um, trousseau. And you might like to know that Spanish PM Zapatero is officially persona non grata in the US -and he’s a NATO member.

Academics are No. 1 on the hit list. You gotta be tuff, like Ramsey Clark.

and Joshua…write your Representative and demand an apology from HS. It worked for me…I got one! Of course, Oklahoma, er, I don’t know…

August 6th, 2007, 2:55 am


Safa said:

Dear Prof Landis

On a slightly unrelated (or slightly related whichever way you want to look at it, as you keep these posts under Landis in the news) I saw a fascinating interview of you on Syrian satellite television recently. Is this a recent interview? I thought the lady interviewer asked you many interesting and searching questions. It’s how I discovered your blog! I would like to watch this interview again, or see transcripts of it published on your blog, I have searched for it, I cannot seem to be able to find it? I found this a little surprising to say the least, as you seem to publish every article, or interview you’ve done, but not this one. Why is that? Anyway here’s hoping to see transcript of your interview, on your blog soon. I can predict it will be a popular entry, so I hope you will go ahead and do it. I will certainly comment on it, if you publish it. Thanks in advance.

August 17th, 2007, 9:57 pm


SAFA said:

Prof Landis

I am disappointed not to have seen any response from you regarding my request to see your interview with Syrian TV published on your website, either in written form or as a downloadable video file. I think it will be to your credit, as I thought you put on a good performance, although some questions, I felt you sat on the fence. I am sure it will generate interest. So please, I am once again appealing for you to show this interview. Was it recent? I saw it quite recently on Syrian TV, so I assume it was recent. Many thanks.

September 15th, 2007, 9:34 pm


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