News Round UP (9 Sept. 2008)

Dealing in Damascus, Rami Khoury
Daily Star, Sept. 8, 2008

[Photo by Ahmad Shamma]

….This week’s Damascus meeting testifies dramatically to the changing Middle East, which has become incredibly complicated in view of the many conflicts that are now entangled in a single large regional dynamic. It also points to greater changes ahead, because of Syria’s contradictory position on some core issues related to Iran, Lebanon and Israel.

The most striking common denominator in this gathering comprises the roles of France, Qatar and Turkey as important new diplomatic mediators in the Middle East, filling the large gap left by the United States, which has increasingly marginalized itself by its own mistakes and biases. The United States, Europe — and the UN to a lesser extent — have dominated diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran, but they have systematically failed to achieve breakthroughs. The 2006 Israel-Hizbullah summer war reminded everyone of the terrible carnage that will surely occur when simmering tensions erupt into war. The Iraq war revealed how conflict in one area spills over into and destabilizes other parts of the region. Last year’s brief war between the Lebanese army and the Fateh el-Islam radical Salafist group pointed to the new terror threats the entire region faces.

The vacuum created by the United States’ diplomatic auto-demotion is being filled quickly, so that the regional conflicts do not erupt into active warfare. Qatar, Turkey and France are the main players offering to mediate; others also seek roles, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The focus on Damascus now is solely because Syria has its hands in almost every major conflict in the region — Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Israel, for starters. It must be engaged and placated to an extent, to prevent a deterioration that results in widespread war and destruction.

Syria’s reasonable demands can be met, such as regime survival, territorial integrity, a return of its occupied Golan Heights, and no political intrigues or military threats emanating from Israel or Lebanon. Wider goals of dominating Lebanon and Jordan are not reasonable and will be resisted. Many Lebanese understandably remain unsure how far the major international and regional players will go to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty, should Syria try to regain control or major influence there.

The two big players watching the Damascus talks are Iran and Hizbullah, and this is where Syria’s position seems untenable. Syria cannot realistically claim it is interested in negotiating permanent peace with Israel while also maintaining its strong alliances with Iran and Hizbullah. A Syrian-Israeli peace is a strong possibility in the coming two years, and if it happens it will trigger Lebanon-Israel peace talks, and major changes in Hizbullah’s strategy and behavior in Lebanon. Syria cannot credibly make peace with Israel while supporting those who resist and fight Israel.

The prevalent international view is that today’s diplomacy aims to separate Syria from Iran. That is unlikely to happen in the short run, but certain to happen in the longer run. The Syrian-Iranian strategic relationship is an unnatural one, and is also untenable for very long in the face of possible Syrian-Israeli ties.

Syria is bargaining to regain its land, and its place in the heart of the Arab world, rather than remain it its quarantine ward. The prospects of peace with Israel, a secure Assad-led regime, normal ties with the major Western and Arab states, and large injections of development aid have all the trappings of a deal that must appeal to Damascus. Syria will work towards this goal slowly and steadily, according to the established rules of bazaar bargaining — without making abrupt and major concessions, or humiliating its many partners. It will change slowly, and also will seek to have others change with it.

The most intriguing thing going on in Damascus is not about Syria alone; it is rather that events in Damascus could be a harbinger of what could soon take place in Iran — where they also know carpets, and when to strike a reasonable deal before the good buys, and your bargaining power, disappear.

WSJ's Bret Stephens: Democratization and Its Discontents
2008-09-08 21:00:17.870 GMT

"Yes, Leezza, Leezza, Leezza," leched Libya's Moammar Gadhafi last week on the eve of his meeting with the U.S. secretary of state in Tripoli. "I love her very much."

Posterity will surely not record whether the dictator's feelings were reciprocated. But it will remember that Ms. Rice, who began her tenure as secretary with a ringing call for freedom and democracy, is ending it on a more genial note when it comes to the world's despots.

"For 60 years," she said in Cairo in June 2005, "the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither." Yet the U.S. rapprochement with Libya is nothing if not the triumph of the stability agenda over the freedom one. Just ask Libyan democracy activist Fathi El-Jahmi (on whose behalf Sen. Joe Biden has made honorable exertions), assuming you can find him in whatever dark cell Mr. Gadhafi has him in.

But let's give Ms. Rice her due. Her return to the realpolitik of onetime mentor Brent Scowcroft is earning rave reviews. In Time magazine, reporter Scott Macleod lauded her visit to Libya as "an unqualified success" and "an example of how violent disputes in the troubled region can be settled through diplomacy rather than war." Former Clinton administration official James Rubin is over the moon over Ms. Rice's move to establish a formal U.S. interests section in Tehran. Her efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are also being lauded, as is her diplomatic outreach to Syria and North Korea…..

Washington is getting what so far seems to be a crummy return on its pro-democracy investments. The Bush administration made a notable push for Palestinian democracy and wound up electing Hamas, which will almost certainly win next year's presidential election should it choose to contest it. It pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon, only to get a weak and divided democratic government that crumbled in the face of Hezbollah's (and Syria's) violent provocations.

It looked on as Pakistan democratized its way out of Pervez Musharraf's autocratic — and relatively clean and competent — hands and into Asif Ali Zardari's dirtier and clumsier ones. It supported Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili as he blundered his way into a war with neighboring Russia. In Iraq, it has discovered that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a man in the mold of Charles de Gaulle: firm, astute, nationalistic — and not particular eager to be seen as America's man, much less George W. Bush's….

Time will tell whether Iraq is able to maintain its democracy. But it stands a better chance of survival than Egypt's pressure-cooker regime, the Saudi gerentocracy, Iran's theocracy or Libya's cult-of-personality state. ….

So let's grant that in normalizing relations with a WMD-free Libya, Ms. Rice has chalked up one of the few wins of her desultory tenure — so long as we also grant that turning one dictator would never have happened had we not turned out another.

Nasrallah reaches out to Future, wants dialogue 'today'
The Daily Star, September 08, 2008

BEIRUT: Hizbullah leader Sayyed said Sunday that Lebanon's national dialogue should get under way as soon as possible, exhorting all sides in the country to take part in a discussion that is expected to focus on his party's weapons. Hizbullah is ready "today before tomorrow" to enter into dialogue with other parties, he said in a speech broadcast by Hizbullah's Al-Manar television.

Denying accusations that he and his Shiite party were hostile to Sunni organizations like parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri's Future Movement, he insisted he was ready to meet with the Beirut MP.

"Even if the security situation means that Hariri and I can't meet personally," he said, "this does not necessarily mean that senior officials from both parties can't."

YNET: Israeli leaders have threatened to assassinate Nasrallah. Hariri's father was assassinated in a truck bombing that has been blamed on Syria, a Hezbollah ally. Nasrallah said the reconciliation would help Hezbollah fight Israel.

Lebanon and Syria have vested interests in each other's success
By The Daily Star, Tuesday, September 09, 2008, Editorial

Over the past week, a number of Lebanese politicians have been harping about ominous warning signs emanating from neighboring Syria that seem to indicate that Damascus seeks to resume its security antics in Lebanon. But a much more serious and tangible threat is brewing next door, and the Lebanese will need to act quickly to avert potentially disastrous consequences. Lebanese politicians might be well-intentioned in pointing out the implicit threats made by President Bashar Assad in his recent remarks on Lebanon, but the real danger, to borrow a phrase from a former US president's election campaign, is the economy, stupid.

Syria's impending economic crisis is the quiet menace that threatens to seriously destabilize both that country and this one. Despite several daring efforts by Assad's economic team, the country's economy is poised on the verge of meltdown, with rapidly declining oil reserves, soaring inflation and a job market that is unable to keep pace with growing demand for employment. Lebanon will not be able to insulate itself against the consequences of economic disaster in Syria, so the two nations share an interest in acting as partners to avert the impending catastrophe.

The only way that the two countries can achieve that is for both of them to act in tandem in turning the tide – both economically in Syria and politically in Lebanon. ….

Syrian economy opens _ will its politics follow? by ZEINA KARAM

Young Syrians sit at the Costa coffee house in downtown Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008. Today's Syria, at least on the surface, is starkly different from the bland socialist country it was few years ago. But as it transforms itself economically, many are wondering whether the country can break with its hard line, rigid reputation as it emerges from the shadows of its past and change politically, too, at the same pace. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

In Syria, even the ‘little freedoms’ are now disappearing
The National

In Syria, even the ‘little freedoms’ are now disappearing
The National

…..Much has changed for the better in Syria since I was last there in January. There is a thriving cultural scene, more respect for law and order and, at least for some, a renewed sense of optimism, a sense that Syria is slowly shedding its pariah state image.

Yet, unfortunately, some important things have still to change. There are still many prisoners of conscience in Syrian jails, and the riots at Sidnaya prison in July resulted in several deaths. There was no official transparency in dealing with that, not even towards the relatives of prisoners, many of whom are still in the dark as to whether their loved ones are safe. The low tolerance of dissent and the sense of isolation one feels inside the country, thanks to censorship of the internet and the Western press, is also unchanged.

Many activists told me that they feel under increased pressure every time the international community presses Syria on an issue, be it the Hariri assassination investigation or the more recent nuclear reactor controversy. And it does not matter which issue they are campaigning for – even if it is in line with government policies, such as women’s rights.

Syria urges Arab ministers to discuss US sanctions, DPA

Foreign ministers of the Arab League gathered in Cairo on Monday for talks expected to centre on the Palestinian situation and the crisis in Darfur. Chaired by Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, the session was due to begin in the evening.

Among those participating are Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab League Chief Amr Mussa. The ministers also planned to discuss a unified Arab position to free the region from nuclear weapons.

According to diplomatic sources, Syria wants the ministers to take up the issue of US sanctions preventing Syria and Sudan buying or renting commercial planes.

Syria said such actions violated international civil aviation treaties, international law and the United Nations Charter.

Ahmadinejad enacts Iran-Syria preferential trade agreement- MNA
September 8, 2008

TEHRAN– Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad here on Monday gave the go-ahead to the Iran-Syria preferential trade agreement approved by Majlis (Iran’s Parliament). According to the approved agreement, the sides vowed to strengthen economic relation, increase trade volume, transform the preferential agreement to a free trade treaty, and to boost bilateral trade, ISNA reported.

 A Preferential Trade Agreement is a trading deal which gives preferential access to certain products from the participating countries. This is done by reducing tariffs, but not by abolishing them completely.

Iraq Palestinians head to Iceland
BBC, September 8, 2008

About 30 Palestinians living in a refugee camp in the desert region along the Iraqi-Syrian border are due to leave for resettlement in Iceland. The UN refugee agency says the group, mostly women and children, has been living under canvas for the past two years in extremely harsh conditions. There are about 2,300 Palestinians encamped in the desert region unable to gain entry to Syria. Iceland takes 25-30 refugees per year, mostly vulnerable women and children.

Al Qaida No. 2: Iran waging 'crusader' war against Islam
Reuters, September 9, 2008

Al Qaida deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri accused Iran of taking part in a Western "crusader" war against Islam, in a video aired by al Jazeera television on Monday.

The video also included apparently recent footage of senior al Qaida figure Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, casting doubt on a report that he was killed on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan last month.

In another segment of the video, Zawahri attacked Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, questioning the Islamic Republic's anti-Western stand.

The leader [of Iran] collaborates with the Americans in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and recognizes the puppet regimes in both countries, while he warns of death and destruction anyone who touches an inch of Iranian soil," Zawahri said. …

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