Saturday, November 15, 2008 

The Syria News Wire has MOVED!!!

Write it on the back of your hand now. The Syria News Wire now lives at newsfromsyria.com.

You will be redirected in 6 seconds. Hold tight.

Thursday, November 13, 2008 

Forward Magazine launches blog


Forward Magazine has launched its own blog.

It is probably the widest read Syrian magazine written in English. And it features the writing of the brilliant Sami Moubayed and Abdulsalam Haykal. Worth a read.

 

Britain cuddles up to Syria

Britain's Foreign Minister David Miliband is on his way to Damascus - as Syria's remarkable comeback continues.

Miliband's visit comes after Walid Mu'alim made the trip to the UK last month. He's hoping to meet Bashar Al-Assad too.

Yesterday Miliband said "There has been an important change in the approach of the Syrian government.” He praised Damascus for cutting the number of foreign fighters and weapons over the past year.

It is Britain's highest-level contact since Tony Blair came to Damascus in 2001. Blair was humiliated when Bashar lectured him about suicide-bombing in a joint press conference.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the first major hole in Syria's isolation when he invited Bashar to Paris to be guest of honour at the Bastille Day celebrations.

Britain's been stuck to the Bush agenda of ignore-ignore-ignore. But with Bush on the way out, and Obama promising negoations with Syria, Britain has jumped into the let's-talk camp.

But what's more interesting is speculation that Britain is trying to take the lead - and steal France's glory. A few years ago, the West was united in isolating Syria. Now those same countries are competing to be Syria's best friend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 

Anti-government film wins prize in Damascus


The winner of Best Arab Film at this year's Damascus International Film Festival is an odd choice. It is about a Syrian political prisoner.

Out of Coverage focuses on the prisoner's best friend, and the prisoner's wife. His friend dedicates his life to trying to free him, and helping his family survive. But in the end, it becomes clear that he is the real prisoner - even though he isn't behind bars.

Along the way, it also raises questions about corruption, wasta, and arbitrary detention.

It is a brilliant film, and worthy of the award. But it is a mystery how it slipped past the censors, and then got singled out for a prize.

Since it was made, Out of Coverage has been - literally - out of coverage. The DVD hasn't gone on sale and the film hasn't been screened at any Syrian cinema - until this year's film festival.

Out of Coverage is now an award winning film on its home turf. But the story behind the film is even more interesting than the film itself.

Out of Coverage. Writer/Director: Abdellatif Abdelhamid. Syria, 2007. 100 minutes.

 

The countdown is on...

Something big is happening to your favourite Syrian news site. (That's this one, silly!).

15TH NOVEMBER 2008.

Exciting!

Monday, November 10, 2008 

Oh no you didn't

Please tell me you didn't.

I'm going to ruin the end of this story, because it's one of my pet hates. AND THE BIGGEST CLICHE IN STORIES ABOUT DAMASCUS.

"Modern-day travelers to Syria have their own conversion when they realize how much the country has to offer."

Sunday, November 09, 2008 

Sunday articles

To keep you entertained, here are a few interesting articles I've found (they're not all brand new).

Students speak up for merits of cool Damascus

"When I told people at home that I was coming to Syria to study, they were really worried"


Newsflash - reporter finds foreigners in Damascus.



Finding Common Ground in an Uncommon Nation

"The Cham Palace in downtown Damascus — our home for the next week — somewhat dims our good mood. The cavernous lobby, defective neon lighting and sulky employees make you feel that you have somehow landed yourself in the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Furthermore, the hotel has the dubious distinction of allegedly having been the meeting place of al-Qaeda operatives and Iraqi insurgents back in 2003."

Really offensive in some parts - but worth reading just for the people they meet, and the places they go to: Art House, Madina FM, Jebl Qasioun, Palmyra, Saida Zeinab.



In youthful Syria, media is cool, happy and proud

"The Al Kanar Group stations broadcast in the languages most common and most accessible to young Syrians. Al-Manar mixes Arabic – described as “a relaxed informal Arabic rarely if ever heard here in the past” – and English. Rotana FM broadcasts Arabic and French. Mix FM is all English language. MixFM was launched in March 2007 as the first 24 hour English speaking station in Syria. The use of informal Arabic has been a trademark of Syrian film and, most popularly, television."


The first reliable piece about Syrian radio.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008 

George Wassouf released

George Wassouf has been released, after spending three days in jail in Sweden.

He was arrested after a raid on his hotel. It's claimed he had been in possession of cocaine.

Wasouf cried as the judge decided to free him. A crowd of fans gathered outside the court. As he walked out, he said: "I was framed and now I have been released."

 

Wrong about Syria

I started to critique this article because of a few factual errors. But it quickly became obvious something more sinister was at play. There were reasons for these errors.

Malik al-Abdeh has written his first article for The Guardian. Unsurprisingly it is about Syria. Why do I say unsurprisingly? Because Malik al-Abdeh runs a group calling for regime change in Syria - but that's not mentioned anywhere on the page.

He says of his organisation: "we propose a non-violent strategy, which targets the regime where it is most vulnerable: popular support." And it looks like he is using The Guardian as part of that propaganda strategy.

So on to the article. He talks about the recent two-and-a-half year imprisonment for a number of activists:

"In its desperate attempt to emerge from isolation, the Syrian regime appears to have moderated its treatment of oppositionists to avoid further escalation with the west."

Syria is generally accepted to have moved out of the period of isolation. It is not acting desperately. In fact, many claim it is cracking down on dissidents precisely because it feels emboldened.

"Eight years on, the so-called "reformists" and the "old guard" have been shown to be one and the same."


This shows a very basic ignorance of Syrian politics. The "old guard" have been involved in a sometimes quite visible battle with the reformists - take Aymen Abdel Nour for example, or the attitudes of Abdullah Dardari compared to Walid Al-Muallem.

"Until he was temporarily reprieved by President Sarkozy, Assad's fate looked sealed."


This ignores all of the developments of the past three years, and squeezes them into one incorrect sentence. It wasn't just Sarkozy. It was the EU (Javier Solana), America (Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Nancy Pelosi), Spain (the King visited) and of course - Israel! Plus the Doha Accord, which brought Syria to centre stage in the region.

There are a couple of intriguing sentences: "Despite its defiant rhetoric", followed soon after by, "It is very keen to get back in favour with the west." So which is it?

But best of all, al-Abdeh's basic point of the article contradicts itself.

He starts by saying: "Despite being courted by the leaders of France and Britain in the naive belief that he could be relied on to deliver the reforms expected of him."

But then ends with a plea: "Now is the time for the west to press home the advantage by insisting on only conditional engagement with Syria, engagement which is made provisional on tangible improvements in human rights and political freedoms."

He can't deliver reform. So now the west should demand reform.

Full article here.

Monday, November 03, 2008 

George Wassouf arrested on drugs charges

Syria's biggest singer is being held in Sweden, accused of having drugs. George Wassouf is one of the most famous in the Arab World - a sort of Arab Michael Jackson.

There was a police raid on his hotel in Stockholm on Saturday night. It's claimed the forty six year old had 30 grams of cocaine on him.

The raid happened just before a concert - which had to be cancelled.

There have been rumours of Wassouf's drug addiction for years. His voice seems to have been affected by the problem.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 

US embassy in Damascus may close

America says it may have to close it's embassy. It follows angry
protests in Damascus following Sunday's invasion.

Extra Syrian police have been guarding the compound since Sunday.

Even during the start of the Iraq war the building stayed open,
although the Syrian army stopped protesters getting near the top end
of Abu Rumani street.

The embassy has been without an ambassador for three and a half years.

 

Aftermath of the American invasion of Syria

This is a battle of words. True, eight people died, but everyone knows
Syria is not going to attack America - as it has the right to.

Syria has been invaded. America called it "taking matters into our own
hands". But the real debate is over what Syria is calling it.

On the streets, people are calling this an act of war. But officials
are deliberately steering clear of those two explosive words.

Syria does not want a war, no matter how limited, which is what
America appears to be gunning for.

Instead, they're calling it a war crime. That's telling, because it
frames the attack within the context of what's going on in Iraq. Syria
is making it clear it sees the invasion as a misstep in America's war
on Iraq. It is not an outright invasion.

Syria is as stunned as the rest of the world. It has cracked down on
people crossing the border. It's impossible to travel anywhere near
the border without getting stopped, checked or followed.

And America knows it. It has praised Syria for stopping the flow of fighters.

In Damascus, protection has been stepped up at the US Embassy. And on
the night of the attack there was an impromptu demonstration on the
city centre.

Monday, October 27, 2008 

Internet crashes in Syria

The internet is finally back up and running after crashing for much of the afternoon.
 
None of the servers could connect, from 3pm until 7pm.

 

America attacks Syria, killing 8 people

America has attacked Syria for the first time. Eight people have died.
 
It happened in Abu Kamal, on a farm near the Iraqi border. It was five miles inside Syrian territory. Two US helicopters landed in Syria, and around eight troops got out to shoot at a building. The attack apparently lasted around fifteen minutes, with US troops shooting at people trying to escape. This was a comprehensive attack, not a mistake.
 
It is the first time it has happened since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A US official told AP that "We are taking matters into our own hands," after blaming Syria for allowing militants to cross the border.
 
Top US commanders in Iraq have previously said Syria has reduced the number of fighters entering Iraq. Official figures show no more than a handful.

Friday, October 24, 2008 

Syria finally gets the EU deal

It's been on the cards for years. First it was held up because of
political wrangling in Europe but the head of the European Commission
says he expects a deal in a few months.

Javier Solana is in Damascus meeting the president.

The EU Association Agreement effectively puts Syria in the outer ring
of the EU. It is one step away from membership of the EU.

In 2010 all Association signatories will become part of a free trade
zone with Europe providing a massive boost for Syria's economy justas
the oil runs dry.

Most other EU neighbors have signed yw agreement. Syria is one of the last.

It follows Syria signing up to a high profile part of French president
Nicolas Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union earlier this year.

 

The seatbelt saga continues

It's been getting worse. It started a few months ago. As i explained a
few days ago, taxi drivers would pull their seatbelt across as they
approched the traffic lights.

It's all because of the police crackdown.

But over the past few days every time I get in a taxi I hear the same
line - put your seatbelt on. It comes out in an almost pleading,
apologetic voice.

And this is the reason. Anyone who is stopped by the police because
they or heir front seat passenger aren't wearing a seatbelt gets a
2000 lira fine ($40). It's reduced to 1000 lira if they pay within a
week.

One driver complained to me that many old cars just don't has
seatbelts. That doesn't make them exempt. If they're stopped they have
to take their car to a mehanic, get the belts fitted and then go back
to the police to prove they've had it done.

It's becoming routine for drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts -
and not just when they fear they might be caught.

It's all happened very quickly but it might just make a big difference
to life on Syria's roads.

 

Replies to comments

Qabbani - thank you very much for your kind offer. I wasn't in Amman
for long, but maybe next time I'll need your help!

Syria Almighty - yes I heard the story about the Bush letter. But what
struck me as odd was that the story came from just one country. And it
wasn't America or Syria!

Amniyah - lots of photos are coming...it's worth the wait.

Thursday, October 23, 2008 

Julia Boutrous update

And if you missed your chance last night, there's still time to get your tickets for tonight's final concert.

It starts at 8.30 in the Citadel. Queues build up quickly, and you can't buy tickets at the door.

Tickets have officially sold out (at the Arab Capital of Culture office in Afif), but there are plenty being sold on the streets. You just have to know where to ask. It's not hard. Good luck.

 

Sound of the Resistance - Julia Boutrous in Damascus

The Damascus Citadel was built to defend the city. Last night, it played host to a woman singing the praises of those who fought to defend Lebanon.

Julia Boutrous was in town for one of the biggest concerts of the year. And she was given the honour of being one of the first people to sing in the Citadel.

The historic building has been closed for years, while foreign archeologists dug away. But this year, it's been opened up to the public for a few precious nights. Julia Boutrous's concerts mark the end of this year's Citadel events.

Getting thousands of people in to such an historic place, installing sound and light systems, a stage and chairs, could all have caused a huge amount of damage. But, thankfully, it was done in a tasteful, delicate way.

Boutrous is known across the Arab World as a nationalistic singer, hitting the headlines in the 1980s when her songs became national anthems for occupied southern Lebanon. So when she came on stage last night, the first thing she did was thank the Syrian nation, and the Syrian resistance.

She was backed by a full orchestra and conductor. Standing in a long black dress, the forty year old rarely moved from behind her microphone stand. At the end of each song, the lights went up, and some fans waved flags at her - the Lebanese flag, and the SSNP flag (one of the Lebanese opposition parties, allied with Hizbollah).

After two hours of non-stop crowd-pleasing, Boutrous ended with a new song - a sweet love song, in stark contrast to the rest of the evening. The crowd went silent for the first time as she sung Khalas, Intihayna (Enough, We're Finished). And with that, she finished.

Except that the crowd were having none of it. To chants of 'Julia, Julia', she made her way back on to the stage. But one encore wasn't enough. She came back an amazing FOUR times to give her fans what they wanted.

The last time, the lights had already gone down and the band was packing up. Boutrous walked to the front of the stage and joked with the crowd, "We're going to be here until the morning at this rate," she said, laughing. The crowd reacted with a cheer - most of them would have had no problem listening to her until dawn.

With no band, Boutrous told the crowd it would be "just you and me". She sang a capella. And what did she choose - the song which made her famous, Shams Al Haqq, released in 1980, during the Israeli Occupation of southern Lebanon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008 

Amman - first impressions

Some more live blogging. This time from Coffee and News -
appropriately! - on Jebl Amman. I'm going to tell you what's caught my
eye. It's all subjective.

A lot has changed. The upmarket shopping area of Sweifiyeh is
unregconisable - its massive pedestrian area is impressive. I seem to
remember it as a building site! And the Abdoun bridge is big, bold and
brash.

Shmeisani seems very different too. Two things stuck in my memory of
Amman - one was Frosti the ice cream shop. I struggled to even find it
this time among all the newness surrounding it.

Next, to Jebl Amman, the leafy residential district sitting atop
Downtown. It's as beautiful as I remember. Books@Cafe is still my
favourite spot in town.

People seem angry. Maybe they just don't like me! No one smiles here.
And taxi drivers don't offer cigarettes to their passengers - maybe
that's a Damascene oddity.

There are a lot of public spaces here. Seats on pavements seem to be
well used. But countering that is this place's obsession with the car.

Walking up and down a few of the hills - I can see why.

 

Live blogging Amman

Live from a streetside cafe in Abdoun, Amman.

I'm jealous that you have so many more Americans - students, workers,
businesses. Not because I particularly like them. Just because it
feels like they are restricting themselves - scared of something they
don't need to be.

Thursday, October 16, 2008 

Seatbelts - Syrian style

Seatbelts have always been a bit of a novelty in Syria.
 
All new cars are fitted with them, but they go unused. Sitting, untouched, by the door.
 
But that is slowly changing. For years, it has been illegal to drive - or sit in the front passenger seat - without wearing a seatbelt. But the law has never been enforced. Until now.
 
Police are cracking down. And not just in the cities. Even in the smallest towns, as you go round the central square, the traffic police are busy looking out for anyone not wearing strapped in.
 
Syria's high road fatality rate has long been blamed on poorly enforced traffic laws. It's hoped this will be a quick way to cut down on the number of deaths.
 
But not everyone is taking the new rules seriously. As taxi drivers approach the traffic lights, they tell their passengers to belt up. They do the same. Well, they hold the seatbelt across their chest. As soon as they are safely out of the sight of the police - they let the belt fly back into its usual home.

 

Deadly bus crash in Damascus

A bus has crashed on the South Bypass Road in Damascus - two people have died.
 
Another eight are injured - three seriously.
 
It happened yesterday, during the rain storm. Unusually, the bad weather - and not excessive speed - is being blamed.
 
The forty seater vehicle careered off a bridge on the Mahlaq Jnoobi - the southern bypass road. The crash happened near to the scene of last month's deadly car bomb.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 

Here comes the winter

Only in Syria would a heatwave signal the coming of winter.
 
It has been getting hotter and hotter over the past couple of days. It's now at uncomfortable levels of sweat - we're way into the thirties celcius. It's been accompanied by cloudier skies.
 
And today it broke. There was a huge rain storm a few minutes ago, taking everyone by surprise.
 
But this could be another false start. Last month it got very cold, only to return to temperate mid-twenties celcius.
 
So do we get those winter clothes out or not?

 

Lebanon and Syria normalise relations

The Lebanese and Syrian Foreign Ministers have finally signed an agreement to recognise and respect each other's sovereignty and independence.
 
The two men have met in Damascus. It opens the way for the formal demarcation of the border and opening of embassies. They are two of the French and American demands hanging over Syria.

 

More replies to comments

Yazan - another Mac user! No, I'm too stubborn to give up my MacBook.
I hate PCs. Although I am grudgingly using them. Do you know where the
Mac shop is? I've heard Mezzeh?

Sharks - yes, the yellow does look very good! Not sure about pink
though! Are you in Damascus?

Amniyah - thanks, I know about all those sites/programmes etc. Do they
work on STE lines as well, or just private lines? If so, what's all
the fuss about 'banning' Facebook about, if everyone knows how to get
round it?

Abu Kareem - EXACTLY my thoughts. If only.

Matt - yes, it is impressive.

Norman - there are plenty of pictures, when I get a fast enough connection.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 

Meeting the President

Eight o'clock. Damascus. The National Orchestra was about to perform at the Opera House.

The audience were taking their seats - and then there was a growing whisper coming from the right hand side. The whisper grew to a chatter.

Down the steps walked a tall man in a grey suit, next to a blonde woman in a purple dress had just entered.

If you didn't know Syria you wouldn't know this was the President. There were no bodyguards and no glass screens. And not even a special seat. He took a place with the rest of the audience - ok, so it was the front row. But these were normal four-dollar seats - just five places in front of me.

At the end, the conductor called the President up on stage - he shook the hands of the performers and walked out - followed right behind by people trying to get his attention.

He spent half an hour talking to members of the public outside. And then left by the front door, and got in a normal car with his wife.

 

Replies to comments

I'm still having problems getting into my own comments, so this will have to do for now.

Anonymous - what are foreign students telling their families back home, about life in Syria?

My problem is not with foreigners in Damascus - far from it. Damascus has a long history of welcoming immigrants. My problem is with Arabs greeting Arabs in English. It's bizarre, and confined to one square kilometer of the country.

Norman - if you saw how tight their tops were, you wouldn't say they were Hizbollah fans!

Nour - I'm glad that cleared things up. Welcome to the blog.

Matt and Amniyah - I've seen this trend in London too - the yellow fashion - but here it's everywhere!

Sunday, October 12, 2008 

Damascus in Yellow

Does EVERY girl in this city have to be dressed in yellow?

Girls in hijab, with long tight yellow t-shirts. Girls with big hair
in yellow blouses. Girls with blue jeans in - you guessed it - yellow
tops.

Some have black writing, some kind of image, or even a tactically
placed butterfly.

But they're all the same shade. Like someone dumped a huge yellow
paint pot on the city.

 

Colonisation - update

I've just been into a cafe in Kasaa (next to Bab Touma), I said one
word, and I was greeted with 'Hello, welcome'.

(Reply to Matt's comment - no, it's Syrian shopkeepers greeting me
this way! I'm having trouble replying to comments in the normal way at
the moment.)

Saturday, October 11, 2008 

The colonisation of Bab Touma

I guess it's always been like this to an extent. White European Arabic
language students are told they will did life easier living with the
Christians.

So they arrive in Damaacus, walk around Bab Touma and read one of the
signs - written in English - advertising a room for rent in an 'Arabic
house'.

What happens is they end up living in a house full of other European
students. Some rarely leave Bab Touma.

They eat in it's restaurants, go out in its bars, and shop in its
streets.

While there's nothing wrong with them being here - in fact it's a very
good thing. There is something wrong with walking up to a shop, as an
Arab and before i open my mouth, I am greeted with 'hello' in English.

Monday, October 06, 2008 

City of Jamine

Jasmine is the flower of Damascus.
 
No Jasmine in the world smells like the Damascene Jasmine. But as the city jumped head-first into the Soviet-style progress of the 1960s and 70s, that smell was replaced by the odour of petrol fumes, building site work, dust and cigarettes.
 
By the turn of the century, the idea of Jasmine in Damascus had become just that - an idea, a memory, slowly fading away until it became nothing more than a myth. But people live on myths, and imagined memories. So a massive Jasmine planting programme began a few years ago. 5000 plants sprung up across the capital, surrounding almost every public building.
 
Walk along the streets at night, especially at this time of year, and the scent of Jasmine becomes overpowering.
 
I have some Jasmine scent in a bottle that I take with me when I travel. Its job is to remind me what this city smells like. But truth got mixed up with imagination a few nights ago. I was walking through Damascus, and I could smell the Jasmine. I racked my brain trying to think what it reminded me of.
 
Then it came to me - the flowers brought back the memory of my bottle of scent.

Friday, October 03, 2008 

American in Damascus

This is the best tourist article about Damascus I have seen for a very long time.

It is by London-based NBC journalist F. Brinley Bruton.

She spends a lot of time outside the Old City (yes, there is a Damascus outside the city walls!) and doesn't include the phrase "conversion on the road to Damascus" anywhere in her article.

It is a very thoughtful, original piece. And she clearly has been talking to real Damascenes:

"Someone advised me to not pay too much attention to maps while in Damascus."

"other Westerners tended to look away when we passed. This is the sort of place where tourists appear unwilling to speak to other foreigners, perhaps unwilling to admit that they don’t have the city to themselves."

"Naranj, full of sleek, well-heeled Syrians, has the reputation as the best restaurant in the city."

"The next night we ventured out of the Old City to go to Shameat."

The full piece is here.

 

John McCain will recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital

McCain's vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin: "building our embassy, also, in Jerusalem, those things that we look forward to being able to accomplish with this peace-seeking nation."

Until now, America's embassy has been in Tel Aviv. Every other country in the world also has their embassy in Tel Aviv (except Micronesia) because they have agreed to wait until the final status of Jerusalem is settled.

Tel Aviv is the de facto capital at the UN. Only Israel - NOT EVEN AMERICA, not even Bush - recognises Jerusalem as the capital.

This is a massive step. There are three main issues in the Palestine-Israel conflict: the refugees, Jerusalem and the settlements.

In 2004, Bush said that some settlements will have to remain - breaking with decades of consistent messages that the settlements will be sorted out in the final status negotiations.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008 

Why The Guardian is wrong on Syria

...this time.

Ian Black has been The Guardian's Middle East editor since the legendary Brian Whitaker moved to a different role at the British newspaper. They were big shoes to fill, but Black has done it admirably.

He knows Syria - ok, not as well as Whitaker did - and he treats it with a degree of intelligence most so-called Syria 'experts' don't.

But in his latest piece he is wrong. Very wrong.

The piece is called Tension grows between Syria and Lebanon after bombings. But the 'Lebanon' position is represented solely by Sa'ad Hariri - a leader on the wane, and certainly not representative of Lebanon - maybe part of the Sunni sect.

Hariri accuses Syria of "infiltrating extremists to north Lebanon to carry out terrorist attacks targeting the Lebanese army and civilians".

Lebanese analyst Nadim Shehadi does back up his view - but it certainly isn't prevalent.

There has never been any claim that terrorists in Lebanon have come from Syria - there have been accusations (by Junblatt - although even he has now retracted these) that FUNDING came from Syria. The opposite is true - there is a widespread belief in Syria that the Damascus car-bombers came from northern Lebanon.

Yes, there is tension between Hariri and Bashar - that's not new. But between Lebanon and Syria? That's a bit more of a stretch of the imagination.

Next point...

"A "Takfiri" group - standard terminology for al-Qaida".

Takfiris simply view the world through very narrow lenses. It is true that al-Qaida does too, but that doesn't make them interchangeable. al-Qaida supporters are takfiri, but not vice-versa. A militant may view Shia as apostates, and want to kill them, but not agree with the al-Qaida world-view. It may sound like nitpicking, but conflating the two is dangerous, because next we'll be combining all Muslim militant groups.

"The apparent target was a Syrian intelligence office near the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeynab, where many Iraqi refugees live."

We've been over this point so many times. It was nowhere near Sayida Zeinab. It was next to Jaramana, and closer to the Christian shrines of Bab Touma than the Shia shrine of Sayida Zeinab. See this.

"Syrian opposition sources have claimed that one of the victims was an intelligence officer."

Farid Ghadry? Oh, please. His "claims' are more like wet-dreams. Reliability factor zero.

"In Beirut, Hariri denounced the deployment of Syrian troops along Lebanon's northern borders. He urged the international community not to allow Syria to intervene in Lebanese affairs under the guise of fighting extremism."

This was well covered a few days ago. There were legitimate fears that the Syrian army was about to re-enter Lebanon. But that all changed when Syria passed tough new laws to fight smuggling, and the real cost of the problem became clear. Oh, and the "10,000 soldiers" Hariri saw at the border were caught on camera as being more like 500.

I have a better title for the article: "Hariri cries wolf - again".

 

Syria is favourite for a key position in the UN nuclear agency

Syria is the frontrunner for a seat in the IAEA - the International Atomic Energy Association, which is the UN's nuclear body.

It is a straight fight between Syria and Afghanistan. Initially Syria was the only candidate. But under US pressure, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan also put their names down for the Middle East and South Asia seat. Iran also applied.

The IAEA was investigating Syria after the US and Israel alleged it was building a nuclear weapons factory. The IAEA said there was no evidence, following a months-long investigation.

It would be Syria's highest profile role since it was on the UN Security Council six years ago.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 

Tess's comment

I'm reposting Tess's comment from the All Eyes on Damascus post, just because it's very apt.

"I find it fascinating how differently people choose to report the bombing: which religious sites are near, how quickly it was reported, the rarity of the bombing, the connections to the last bombing in Syria years ago, a prisoner riot, or a meeting with US officials in New York. Reading those quotes, one would have thought that several different events were being reported, based on how differently the material was presented. Trying to imagine some sort of global understanding is difficult when even the most concrete events, such as this bombing which resulted in 17 deaths, can be turned into just about anything."


Thanks Tess, welcome to the blog.

 

Eid on Wednesday in Syria

Eid will be on Wednesday in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Pakistan.

Eid will be on Tuesday for: Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi, Kuwait, Qatar, the Emirates, Palestine, Yemen, Libya and - controversially - only Iraq's Sunnis.

Could the political split be any more obvious?

Monday, September 29, 2008 

Where was the Damascus bomb? Not near a 'Shia shrine'.



Most western media persist in saying the bomb site was "near the Shia shrine of Saida Zeinab". My map clearly shows that is totally misleading.

As Orientalista points out, the attack was much closer to the Palestinian/Golani/Iraqi area of Jaramana. And it was actually closer to the "Christian shrines" in the Old City, if we are going to pinpoint everything in religious terms.

It was about two kilometers down the airport highway, after you leave the Old City, near Bab Sharqi. It happened at the junction for Jaramana.

Click on the map to enlarge.

 

Why the Saudi silence?

It has been three days since seventeen innocent people were blown to pieces in Damascus.

The UN, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, Lebanon, Jordan and most of the world has condemned the attack. But one country is missing. Saudi Arabia has not uttered a single word.

The Guardians of the Two Holy Sites have stayed completely silent. They have not said they sympathise with the victim's families. They have not criticised this act of unbelievable terror.

Either they are sickeningly rude, or they agree with the bombing.

 

Damascus bomb was a suicide attack

Saturday's bomb on the airport road in Damascus was a suicide attack.

A car bomb killed 17 people in the south of the city.

The early results of the investigation show that an Islamist terrorist entered Syria on Friday - the day before the attack.

He came from a neighbouring Arab country - but authorities are not saying which one. That means it could be Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq.

First thoughts will turn to Lebanon, following a report from Britain yesterday claiming that Al Qaeda extremists in Tripoli were planning to attack Syria.

 

5 dead in Tripoli explosion

At least 5 people have been killed and 17 wounded in a bus bomb in Tripoli.

The bus was carrying soldiers. It happened in the Buhsas area of the city during the morning rush hour.

It's six weeks since the last bus bomb in the city - which killed 15 people including 10 soldiers.

Al-Qaeda allied group Fateh Al Islam has been fighting a two year war with the army in Tripoli. It's claimed Saturday's car bomb in Damascus was carried out by the same group.

 

SNAP: Explosion in Tripoli

A bomb has gone off in Tripoli.

It exploded near a bus carrying Lebanese soldiers. There have been casualties.

Tripoli is thought to be a centre for Al Qaeda-supporting terrorists. Many have been funded by the Hariri government.

Sunday, September 28, 2008 

It could've been much worse

The bomb happened on a Saturday morning, the second day of the weekend. If it had happened one day later, many many children would've been killed.

The explosion happened outside a school - large parts of the building have been destroyed.


 

All eyes on Damascus

Here's what the world is saying about Saturday morning's car bomb in Sayida Zeinab, southern Damascus.

"Seventeen dead in car bomb. This is the kind of headline you'd expect in Iraq, not in Syria." - Hala Gorani, CNN, United States.

"It should be said that no American has been killed by terrorists in Syria throughout the entire history of the country." - Syria Comment, United States and Syria.

"The apartments lining the crowded streets around the mosque are home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of them poor, unemployed and undocumented. News reports from Syria said the bombing occurred near a state security post. There were conflicting reports as to the nature of the post, with one opposition web site saying it was no more than a car park used by state security services." - Washington Post, United States.

"The security post [near to where the bomb detonated] is not a very important or significant security site; it is for petrol for security patrols. It is very near the Saydah Zeinab shrine. At this time of year during Ramadan, it is very significant. Pilgrims come from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran to visit the shrine. The security post has not been harmed." Al Jazeera, Qatar.

"The blast was the deadliest since a spate of attacks in the 1980s blamed on Muslim Brotherhood militants." - Agence France Press, France.

"The exiled head of Syria's banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni said the attack could be the work of extremist groups or part of a "struggle between security forces. The security agencies have set up terrorist groups and sent them to neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Iraq. I don't rule out that they have slipped from their control and are carrying out such acts." - Agence France Press, France.

"The bombing comes as senior Lebanese military sources told The Observer that jihadis - some based in the Lebanese city of Tripoli - had launched a series of attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad." - The Guardian, Britain.

"In recent years, there have been some reported clashes [with the Muslim Brotherhood], with the security forces killing several suspected Islamist militants, and arresting hundreds more." - BBC, Britain.

"The bombing also occurred less than three months after Islamist inmates rioted at a prison outside the capital, taking hostages and engaging in gun battles with the authorities, in a confrontation that dragged on for weeks." - New York Times, United States.

"The explosion came only hours after Syria's foreign minister held a rare meeting in New York with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice." - Associated Press, United States.



"Despite claims from Syrian groups that Israel was behind the bombing, political and security officials in Jerusalem [sic - you mean Tel Aviv?] denied any Israeli involvement." - Haaretz, Israel.

"Unusually for Syria, whose media is closely policed, details of the attack were reported immediately, with rolling updates on the casualties and investigation." - The Guardian, Britain.

Images, top to bottom: AFP, BBC, AP.

 

Rest in peace

To the seventeen innocent men and women who left their houses in Saida Zeinab this morning, and never came home.

And shame on some people who are suggesting the victims were soldiers and police, who deserved to die. Shame shame shame. Your hunger for power at all costs makes me sick. Crawl back into your hole in Washington DC.

Saturday, September 27, 2008 

 

Latest pictures - aftermath of the car bomb in Damascus

These are the latest pictures from Syrian television:




 

Car bomb update

It happened on Mahlaq Road, on a junction between the airport road, and the road to Sayida Zeinab.

It was 8km from the shrine of Sayida Zeinab. The bomb would have been much more deadly if it happened near to the densely populated area around the shrine.

 

History of attacks inside Syria

Saturday's car bomb is the worst attack in Syria since 1986.

Syria has been the safest country in the region. In the past eleven years, there have been no terror attacks (except for extremist attacks on the American embassy, and an Israeli attack on a few rocks).

1997 - 9 died in a bus bomb in Damascus.

1986, March 17 - 60 died in a truck bomb at a military compound in Damascus.

1981, November 29 - 64 died in a car bomb.

 

More pictures




Nice to see Agence France Press (AFP) (bottom) stealing images from Syrian Television (top), and then SELLING them.

 

Syrian television wakes up

I'm shocked. Syrian television has already started showing pictures of the car bomb.

When Imad Moughniya was killed in Kafr Souseh in western Damascus, earlier this year, they didn't even MENTION the bomb for a whole day.



Syrian Television this morning

 

Speculation

So, it's been a few minutes since the bomb, and already people are spending their time wishing up conspiracy theories based on their filthy politics, instead of thinking about the fact that seventeen lives have been lost.

Here's what I've heard already:

- The bomb was near the Sidi Kadad Intelligence Headquarters, responsible for monitoring Palestinians in Damascus - it must be Palestinians taking revenge

- The bomb was on the airport road - it must be Israelis trying to hurt a symbol of national significance

- The bomb was in Sayida Zeinab - it must be the Iraqi problem being exported

- The bomb was trying to undermine the stability of the Syrian government - it must be the Americans

- The bomb was revenge for the killing of a top government official last month - it must be the Syrians

- The bomb was revenge for the killing of Hizbollah official Imad Mughniya - it must be the Lebanese

- The bomb follows other attacks across Syria by religious extremists - it must be Al Qaeda

Just think about the dead - instead of how the attack supports your filthy view of the world.

 

CAR BOMB KILLS 17 IN DAMASCUS

17 people have been killed in a car bomb in southern Damascus

It happened in Mahlaq Road in Sayida Zeinab. Another 14 people have been injured. Sayida Zeinab is the Syrian capital's Iraqi area. Most of the 2 million refugees live there.

The car was packed with 200kg of explosives. Buildings 100 metres away have had their windows blown out.

The government says it can not be sure if it is a terror attack

For the past five and a half years, people have been asking how Iraqis who are killing each other back home, can live side by side in Damascus.

 

SNAP SNAP SNAP: CAR BOMB IN DAMASCUS, 17 DEAD

17 people have been killed in a car bomb in southern Damascus.

More follows...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 

Hypocrisy

Iran is "at the centre of violence and fanaticism".

Iran "holds back chances for peace, while undermining human rights".

Iran's actions "postpone the establishment of the Palestinian state."

Shimon Peres, ISRAELI Prime Minister.

 

American extremists

Can someone explain how this is a vote winner in the US:

McCain "if elected, would not become actively engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and discourage Israeli-Syrian peace efforts".

So keeping the region at war is a policy strategy? Is this what makes Americans happy?

Sunday, September 21, 2008 

Syria passes nuclear investigation

Syria has passed the tests from the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA).

The UN's nuclear watchdog says there is nothing to support America's claims that it was building a secret nuclear reactor in the desert. The tests began following an Israeli air raid on a building which it claimed was being used for a nuclear project.

Israel bombed in September 2007. It stayed unusually silent for days, until Syria made the attack public. America waited until April 2008 to make its claims.

Washington alleged the site was a nearly finished reactor. They showed pictures which looked identical to a reactor in North Korea (although, the photos could have actually been sites in North Korea). Israel released pictures apparently showing North Koreans in Syria.

Satellite images showed the site had been leveled after the attack. America was surprised Syria didn't just leave the bombed-out building as it was. But simply removing the bricks and cleaning the ground would not have removed all traces of nuclear material. The Israeli explosion would have dispersed the materials for hundreds of meters in tiny amounts.

The UN investigation followed soon after the American claims. IAEA investigators were given free access to the site in June 2008.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 

Book burning

Disturbing news from Jordan.

Books@Cafe is coming under attack from the unenlightened.

 

British Embassy reopens for visitors in Damascus

Syrian nationals will be able to apply for British visas in the normal way from next week.

Even though the British Embassy has been operational in Damascus, it has been closed to visitors for years, because of the security risk.

Anyone wanting to travel to Britain had to apply for a visa through the DHL office.

But now, Britain is opening a new Visa Centre in Mezzeh - it will be Britain's second office in Damascus (the other one is the embassy in Maliki).

The address is Building 13, Ground Floor, Al Jazaieree Street, Mezzeh West Villas, Damascus.
Phone: 612 5270 and 612 5271.

It will be open Sunday to Thursday 9am to 4pm.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 

Junblatt prepares to join the opposition

Walid Junblatt is a heartbeat away from joining the Hizbollah-led opposition.

Two days after publicly breaking up with his ally of three years, Sa'ad Hariri, his party has had a meeting with Hizbollah. In an interview with the LA Times, he accused Hariri of building his own private army, and supporting religious extremists. He also backpeddled in his previous harsh criticism of Syria and Hizbollah, saying it was all just politics.

Now his party is talking to Hizbollah, and preparing to sign a Memorandum of Understanding - a formal document setting out how they will work together. This is what Michel Aoun did two years ago.

The PSP (Junblatt's party) is insisting that neither party has changed its positions yet.

Saturday, September 13, 2008 

Samir Jaja hints Syria may not be responsible for the Hariri assassination

Samir Jaja, another key March 14 figure has broken ranks, as speculation grows that Saad Hariri will soon be left on his own.

Jaja says the Aridi assassination was connected with the previous killings. That's important because Aridi is a pro-Syrian politician - many of the others who have died have been anti-Syrians. So by connecting the two, he is hinting that Syria couldn't be behind them all.

He also condemned those who suggest the killings aren't linked. Hariri is one of those who has claimed that Aridi was killed by Al-Qaeda allied groups - and that the other politicians were killed by Syrian agents.

The Jaja-Hariri spat comes a day after Walid Junblatt openly criticised Hariri in the LA Times.

 

March 14 on the verge of splitting up

Walid Junblatt is now openly criticising his March 14 ally Saad Hariri. He has given an interview to the Los Angeles Times.

In the interview, he accuses Hariri of trying to build a militia, and allying with religious extremists.

And admits his most inflammatory anti-Syrian comments were made just because "politics requires it", implying that he doesn't stand by those opinions now.

The March 14 coalition came to power because of the twin pillars - Hariri and Junblatt. But he now realises that they are almost certain to lose their majority - and be thrown out of government - in next year's elections.

Junblatt has been making a number of warm comments in Hezbollah's direction since the battles in May 2008. Could this be the start of a new pragmatic allegiance, just like his clever 2005 allegiance with Hariri got him into power?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 

Lebanese opposition politician killed

A main figure in Lebanon's opposition has been killed.

Druze politician Saleh Aridi has died in a bomb blast in Aley. He was an ally of Hezbollah - and his party (led by Talal Arslan) humiliated Junblatt in the fighting in May.

Aley is just outside Beirut, and is considered a stronghold of Walid Junblatt.

The two sides were due to come together on Monday to discuss their differences.

 

Saleh Aridi killed in Lebanon

A bomb has killed Lebanese Druze politician Saleh Aridi. More soon.

Thursday, September 04, 2008 

French President opens school in Damascus

President Nicolas Sarkozy has opened a French school in Damascus.

Sarkozy is aiming to deepen ties between the two countries. He has opened a school in Damascus, named after Charles de Gaulle.



It is making some of the older generation uncomfortable, because they remember France's brutal occupation of Syria.

The two countries have also signed a number of huge economic deals. The most important one is an agreement to allow the French oil company Total operate in Syria for the next ten years.

For the first time in years, the French tricolour flag covers most main roads in the Syrian capital, for Sarkozy's first visit. It is also the first time a western head of state has come to Damascus for five years.

Thanks to Amniya for this.

 

Presidents chat over a Damascene dinner



But where were Bashar Al-Assad and Nicolas Sarkozy having dinner. I'd say it looks like the rooftop of Laranja, a new Gemini Group restaurant on Medhat Pasha, near Bab Sharqi. It specialises in dishes from the different regions of Syria.

What do you think?

 

Syria's proposal for peace

Syria has handed over a document outlining its demands, if a peace-treaty is going to be signed with Israel.

It's given the list to Turkey.

The next stage is for Israel to hand a similar outline to Turkey.

They will provide the starting points for direct negotiations.

It comes as the actual negotiations themselves seem like they're slowing down. Israel has lost its chief negotiator, and it's election season in America.

The two sides may not be meeting up for a chat - but the wheels on the peace-mobile are speeding up.

 

SNAP: Syria-Israel talks postponed

The Syria-Israel peace talks have been postponed because the Israeli negotiator has resigned.

Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad has called the next round "crucial".

Tuesday, September 02, 2008 

Hamas: Meshaal has not left Syria

Hamas has told AFP that Politibureau leader Khaled Meshaal has not left Syria.

It was widely reported this morning that he had gone to Sudan after being kicked out of Syria. The problem is these reports all started life in one place: a Kuwaiti newspaper called Al Rai.

The paper quoted an unnamed 'reliable' Palestinian source.

Kuwaiti papers have developed something of a specialism at selling rumours as fact. As-Siyasseh has become the expert at this. The country's media has targeted Syria before.

The question is now not about the Syrian-Israeli peace talks - but more about what Kuwait is playing at. What did it have to gain?

 

Hamas leader kicked out of Syria

There are reports that Hamas Politibureau head Khaled Meshaal has left Syria.

The timing is very interesting - one day before French President Nicolas Sarkozy lands at Damascus Airport. And just as Syria and Israel signal they are ready for direct talks.

His presence in Damascus has been a key sticking point in the Israel-Syria talks. Israel says it considers the move a huge sign that Syria is serious about the talks.

Syria Today's editor Andrew Tabler has more here.

Saturday, August 30, 2008 

Shakira to defend Arabs in a new song

Columbian-Lebanese singer Shakira is writing a duet to defend Arabs.

She is teaming up with Arab-American singer Dania Youssef. Dania was born in America and sings in English. But she did study Arabic music for three years. On this song, her vocals will be in Arabic - and her words will be written by Egyptian composer Mohamed Saad.

Shakira visited Lebanon for the first time in 2003 and said it felt like a homecoming. She doesn't speak Arabic, and considers herself Columbian - rarely mentioning her Lebanese roots.

The song, which is an attempt to change the image of Arabs as terrorists, will be out by the end of the year. Dania is also recording her first Arabic album.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 

Syria says it's ready for direct talks with Israel

This could be the breakthrough. Bashar Al-Assad is ready to come face to face with Ehud Olmert.

The two countries have been involved in indirect talks for most of this year.

Israel has been asking for a direct meeting for months, but Syria has resisted. Now, things are slowing down, and the chance for a deal looks more distant than it has done at any point during the latest round of talks.

Syria has been holding off on direct talks because it is waiting for Bush to leave office. But Barack Obama's adviser recently visited Syria and told Bashar if he doesn't speed this process up, Barack won't get involved if he comes to power. No-one wants to support a process which could fail.

Syria says it just wants the US to back the talks. France has already said it will.

Apparently, the deal is almost concluded. The technical details - who does what, where and when, have been sorted out. It just needs the politicians to sit down and say 'I do'.

Add to the mix the visit from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He's coming to Damascus in a few days. And he's already supporting direct talks. Bashar's words could spur Sarkozy into talking to Bush.

This has all come from David Ignatius, who has spoken to Bashar's advisers.

So that's it - a few words from Bush - "I support Israel's talks with Syria", and we could be almost there.

Sunday, August 24, 2008 

Damascus experts needed

A good friend is writing a book about Damascus, and needs details about parts of the city's history.

He's also looking for people who know about the Umayed Mosque, its traditions and what goes on there today.

If you think you can help, or if you have any ideas about people who could be useful to speak to, please leave a comment here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008 

Syrian families demand information about missing relatives

Relatives of missing Syrians have staged a sit-in, outside the Ministry of the Interior.

They want to know what has happened to more than 1000 missing in Lebanon. They are demanding that Syrian officials ask Lebanon to investigate.

It follows a request by Lebanese families to learn the fate of their loved-ones, missing in Syria.

Thursday, August 14, 2008 

The anti-Syrians are furious

Bashar Al Assad and Michel Sleiman are meeting in Damascus. Hizbollah and March 14 are working together in Beirut. Syria and Lebanon have healed their wounds.

And Syria is coming in from the cold, internationally.

No wonder the anti-Syrians are having a fit. Have a look at this rant from George Bush's token Syrian friend - the "please invade Syria" cheerleader in Washington:

"If Assad wants to recognize Lebanon, why has he not, as protocol dictates, not visit Lebanon instead of inviting Gen. Suleiman to Syria? When was the last time Assad visited Lebanon? He never did because like a loyal Ba'athist, he considers it as part of Greater Syria. If anyone can confirm this protocol occurring please write me, otherwise, please consider the notion that it is simply too early to roll the red carpet for Assad."

The trouble is, Michel Sleiman has invited Bashar to Beirut, and Bashar has accepted. It was a desperate argument in the first place. And it shows how desperate the 'attack-Syria' lobby in Washington has become.

Start polishing your red carpet, Mr Syrian Chalabi.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 

Lebanon's worst attack in 18 years

At least eighteen people have been killed in Lebanon's worst single attack since the civil war.

Eleven soldiers are among the dead in Tripoli, and forty people are injured - two seriously.

A roadside bomb exploded when a bus drove past during the rush hour in Tripoli city centre.

The attack happened in Banks Street.

Today is the day when President Michel Sleiman visits Syria. Some Lebanese are angry that a deal has been signed between Hizbollah and March 14. Tripoli is a March 14 stronghold.

 

UPDATE: Soldiers targeted in Lebanon bus bomb

At least nine people have been killed, including seven soldiers in Tripoli.

The explosion happened on a civilian bus.

It comes a year after the army's battle with Al Qaeda-allied militants in the city.

More live updates soon...

 

SNAP: LEBANON BOMB - 5 DEAD

Five people have died - including a number of soldiers - in a bomb blast in Tripoli.

It exploded on a bus early this morning.

The attack happened just after the government finally agreed a unity statement - bringing together Hizbollah and March 14. Al Qaeda's Lebanese stronghold is Tripoli.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 

On Palestine

I rarely comment on Palestinian issues - because it is overdone elsewhere (I set up this blog to write about Syria at a time when no-one was). And because it is done by people a lot more knowledgeable than me.

But Israel's offer to the Palestinians. No comment, just the facts:

Israel would annex 7.3% of the West Bank, in return for a smaller patch of DESERT.

Israel would keep the largest settlements.

Israel would be allowed to expand the settlements as much as it likes BEFORE the deal is implemented (i.e. the Palestinians would sign up to the agreement, not knowing how much land they'd eventually get their hands on).

The whole of Jerusalem would become Israeli.

The Israel-Palestine border would be where the Wall is (which cuts deep into the Occupied Territory).

Palestine would have no military.

Fatah would have to overthrow Hamas in Gaza.

The Palestinians would have to admit this is a generous deal.

Thursday, August 07, 2008 

Last of the Damascus Spring prisoners released

Campaigner Aref Dalila has been released.

He was jailed in 2002, as the Damascus Spring - a period of openness at the start of Bashar Al-Assad's presidency - came to an end.

Aref is an economist, and former head of Economics at Damascus University, who was charged with trying to incite armed rebellion. He says he will continue to voice his opinions strongly, and his release wasn't conditional on staying silent.

Interestingly, it's just a few weeks since Ammar Qorabi - head of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria - made a plea to Bashar for Aref to be freed: "because of a deterioration in his state of health and to turn a new page with the Syrian opposition". Qorabi continues to be the voice of moderation, and seems to be able to get away with a lot, and achieve even more. That man is on the up.

A handful of other dissidents - most notably Riad Seif - are still in prison.

Monday, August 04, 2008 

Damascus street signs - history alive

Interesting series of posts from a visitor to Damascus, looking at the street signs.

They often come with a short history lesson in the form of a small plaque next to the road name. The plaque explains why that street has got that name.

The signs provide a vital history of Damascus's streets - and its people.

The first one is here - it's a ten part series.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 

Human remains reach Syria - from Israel

114 coffins have been paraded in Damascus, a week after being released by Israel.

They are mainly Syrian and Palestinian fighters and civilians, killed over the past 40 years. They were transferred by the Red Cross over the Israeli-Lebanese border to Hizbollah last week as part of the prisoner swap.

Today, they were brought in slow-moving vehicles from Lebanon into Syria to be buried in their final resting place. Hundreds of relatives greeted the coffins - draped in the Syrian flag - at the Jedayda crossing on the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Even though some of the victims were civilian - they did not receive the attention that the two dead Israeli militants got last week.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008 

The real Damascene house

"Crammed together in narrow alleyways, old Damascene houses provide privacy for their owners with windows that overlook the street from only the second floor upwards. Even then, the windows are covered by a wooden khis – a hand-painted shutter which keeps curious eyes at bay."

"The bedrooms are raised a level above their doors in order to keep in as much warmth as possible during the cold winter nights. The cold air is trapped in the lower space between the door and the step, protecting the bedroom from icy drafts."

Beautiful description by Raed Jabri - the man behind the Jabri House restaurant (no comment!). He was at the forefront of the rush to convert Old City houses into restaurants.

Sunday, July 13, 2008 

Big Brother

Ah hah hah.

There's a Syrian in Britain's Big Brother TV show.



More about the lovely Maysoon Shaladi here.

Saturday, July 12, 2008 

Damascus and Beirut open embassies

Syria and Lebanon are to open embassies in each other's capitals for the first time ever.

Syria said it would open an embassy in Beirut when a friendly government is formed. That happened yesterday, and so Syria has come good on its promise.

But why does al this matter? When Lebanon was carved out of western Syria, and the two countries gained independence, Syria refused to recognise Lebanon as an independent entity. As Hafez Al-Assad said, one country, two governments. Syria retained its territorial claim on Lebanon until Bashar came into power.

Now, Syria has officially recognised Lebanon's independence - a major gift to France (which is Lebanon's biggest patron), and to the Lebanese right-wing, which looks west, rather than east.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is paying for this with a return visit to Damascus, sometime in the next eight weeks.

 

The Lebanese government - details

All of the parties have chosen political moderates for the ministerial posts - with none of the party leaders taking positions in the goverment (except the SSNP, where the leader holds a non-portfolio post).

Hizbollah gets just one Minister (plus one ally) - although their Opposition bloc gets 11 seats. They have given most of the Opposition seats to Michel Aoun. Two reasons - Hizbollah plays a difficult balancing act between criticising the political elite, and having its say in government. Second - the Hizbollah vote is guaranteed in the election next year, the electorate aren't going to jump ship and vote for March 14, but Michel Aoun's vote is less solid. Hizbollah desperately want Aoun to increase his share of the Christian vote, so that the Opposition bloc could get a majority in parliament.

The rest of the ministries have been neatly divided up. Each appointment tells an interesting story.

The Lebanese Forces get the Justice Ministry - that was important for Samir Jaja, who was imprisoned for murder in 1994, but released on a political whim, when his March 14 allies came to power in 2005.

Michel Aoun's FPM gets the Telecoms Ministry - that's important, because it was a conflict over the private phone network run by Aoun's ally Hizbollah which sparked the violence in May.

Future get the Finance Ministry - a very important area for them because of Hariri's control over so much of Lebanon's business.

And Hizbollah get the Foreign Ministry - because of the party's raison d'etre (the Israeli threat).

The President, Michel Sleiman, also gets to pick three ministers - including the key posts of defence and interior. Mustapha praises his choice for the Interior Ministry, an independent.

And this is an excellent guide to the background and affiliations of each minister.

Here are the key appointments:

Fouad Siniora remains Prime Minister - Sunni, Future Movement.

Mohammad Chatah is the Finance Minister - Sunni, Future Movement.


Ibrahim Najjar becomes Justice Minister - Orthodox, Lebanese Forces.


Issam Abou Jamra becomes Deputy Prime Minister for the Opposition - Greek Orthodox, FPM (Aoun).

Fawzi Salloukh is Foreign Minister - Shia, Independent (but close to Hizbollah)

Mohammed Fneish changes to Labour Minister - Shia, Hizbollah.

Gibran Baassil becomes Telecoms Minister - Maronite, FPM (he's the son-in-law of Michel Aoun).



Ziad Baroud is Interior Minister - Maronite, Independent, chosen by the President.

Elias Murr stays on as Defence Minister - Orthodox, chosen by the President.


Image: the Lebanese Parliament, open for all your dirty political needs.

Friday, July 11, 2008 

New Lebanese government

The formation has been agreed. It will be presented to President Michel Sleiman. Constitutionally, he has to agree to it.

It will then be made public.

The only official announcement is that Fouad Siniora will be Prime Minister.

Details are expected after the meeting - at the end of today.

 

SNAP SNAP SNAP: Lebanese leaders have agreed on the government

More soon...

Saturday, July 05, 2008 

Michel Aoun to become Deputy Prime Minister

Controversial warlord, former Prime Minister, and self-proclaimed President Michel Aoun is apparently going to become Lebanon's Deputy Prime Minister. He will also hold the post of Telecommunications Minister.

That's significant, because the recent fighting was triggered over an argument about Hizbollah's telecoms network.

The national unity government is expected to be announced this afternoon.

It will be formed of 16 ministers from March 14, 11 from the Opposition and 3 loyal to the President.

Apparently, only one of the Opposition ministers will be from Hizbollah.

The delay is now said to be down to fighting between March 14 leaders Amin Gemayel and Samir Jaja over who gets which ministries.

The government negotiations have been brokered by Qatar.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 

Free concert in Damascus TONIGHT (correction!)

Lena Chamamyan is hosting a concert in Tishreen Park TONIGHT. Entrance is free, with a 50 lira ticket to the flower exhibition.

Thanks Orientalista for the correction - I thought it was 2 August, not 2 July!

If you've never heard of Lena, you have to go. She's possibly the most talented Syrian singer of our generation. She's created a unique form of Syrian jazz, and has been taken under the wings of some of the country's most talented producers.

And the venue is just perfect. If you've never been to the Tishreen Park ampitheatre, this is a great excuse to go, even if you don't like the music. I heard Lebanese electro-pop duet Soapkills there a few years ago, and the memory is still with me.

The full line up is as follows:
Basel Rajoub on the saxophone and trumpet
Bruno Paoli playing piano
Omar Harb on bass
Tareq Faham on drums
Feras Sharestan with the qanoun
Feras Al Hasan on classical percussion

It's in Tishreen Park, at the ampitheatre (which is in the north east corner of the park), at 8pm on Saturday 2 August. And it just costs 50 lira to get in.

More about Lena very soon. But for now - enjoy this:

Saturday, June 28, 2008 

Fly in, fly out

Never trust an article that begins with: "In the evenings, the glitterati of Damascus gather at Z-Bar".

Friday, June 27, 2008 

And we thought it was just the Arab World

The EU has passed a draft law making anonymous blogs illegal.

To run a blog, you would have to register with your full - and real - name. And it's all because we are polluting the internet with "misinformation and malicious intent".

Egypt tried to do it, and failed. Syria tried to do it, and failed. The difference is, Europe knows what it is doing.

Privacy International rates parts of the EU as being the worst places in the world for protecting your personal information - yes, worse than the Arab World.

For Big Brother, look West.

Sunday, June 22, 2008 

Another close McCain adviser is former CIA director James Woolsey, who has openly advocated bombing Syria.

Saturday, June 21, 2008 

Israel and Iran

Israel has made a test-run for an attack on Iran. It sent its planes west, over the Mediterranean to an area over Greece - exactly the same distance from Israel as Iran's Natanz nuclear plant, but in the opposite direction.

The US has confirmed it was a try-out for an attack on Iran.

Why is no-one condemning this trial-run as an act of aggression in itself. It is far more threatening than any words that have come out of Ahmedinijad's mouth.

The UN's nuclear watchdog (the IAEA) has feebly responded by warning that an attack will make Iran even more determined to get nuclear weapons.

I always like to play the reverse game. Turn it around. Let's say Iran flew jets east in a trial-run for a bombing campaign over Israel. What would the UN say?

(a) Iran must be disarmed by whatever means possible - an emergency Security Council meeting is called for tonight.

or

(b) Iran, please don't attack Israel, it will just make Israel more determined to get nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 

Bashar in India - how did he do it, and what's going on?

Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad has arrived in India - the first Syrian head of state to visit in three decades. And the most important foreign trip Bashar Al-Assad has ever made.

Politics - Israel, America, Iraq and Lebanon - may be Bashar's immediate concern. But with the oil set to dry up within two years, Syria is starting to court foreign economic powers. And the world's strongest economies over the next decade will be India and China - not America or Europe.

So who won the bid to run Syria's largest oil company - an Indian-Chinese joint venture, taking over from a Canadian firm.

But how did Bashar make it to India? A neutral party in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and close to the US, a few things must have gone through the Indian Prime Minister's head. Most importantly, how will this affect our new relationship with Israel. The answer - if Israel can talk to Syria, surely we can.

And what a visit - five days will be spent in the country. To put that in context - most political visits last a few hours, or a day at most. When Sarkozy came to Lebanon on his landmark visit, he stayed for three hours. He barely had time to get through passport control.

Bashar's taken a huge team to India - including the economy and trade minister, and the telecoms and technology minister.

The reason for bringing the economy minister is obvious. But why the telecoms and technology man?

Well, my personal - off-the-radar and slightly leftfield - prediction: India's Reliance Telecom or Bharti wants to buy Syriatel, which has been up for sale for a while. Both Reliance and Bharti have been trying to get their hands on MTN (a South African company which also has a foot in Syria) - but Syriatel would be a quick hit, and give the Indians exactly what they want - easy access to a developing market.

But reason number two for bringing the telecoms and technology minister - Bashar has already said he wants Syria to be a call-centre country, like India. He wants foreign countries to outsource their call centres to Syria. And India is the world leader in that field.

And reason number three - Syria has a huge amount to learn from India's technology industry. Tech is India's oil.

It's the economy stupid.

So what makes us so sure Bashar is so economy-obsessed? Look at many of Bashar's key appointments since 2000. The Deputy Prime Minister - Abdullah Al-Dardari - has an economic background. There are experts who used to work in the World Bank. And Syria's ambassador to Washington is - tellingly - a businessman, not a politician, not even a Ba'ath Party member.

One of Syria's sharpest minds is the ambassador to UAE - which is set to become the Arab World's financial powerhouse. And the eloquent Buthayna Sha'aban - who started out as the President's spokesperson, and one of his closest allies - now has the job of enticing Syrians living abroad to come back home and use their skills to build the economy. And it seems to be working.

The economy is the new politics.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 

Random Beirut thoughts

This is completely subjective and deliberately uncomprehensive. A list of words I wrote, painting a picture of my first impressions of walking back into the city.

Bey: No McDonalds sign (the fast food joint opposite the AUB in Bliss Street is faceless - but the two policemen who used to stand guard outside aren't there anymore).

Roadblocks (they're everywhere now - but the best taxi drivers know how to get through them without slowing down).

Second language (Monot: "bonjour" - heard on street corners, and in shop doorways. Hamra: "hello").

Posters = healthy politics (this was before the recent clashes - the posters are everywhere, you can locate yourself by the words on the walls).

Hariri obsession (Kulna maak posters in Quratem - haven't I seen something similar in Syria?. Men in black at the bomb site, looking solemn, getting ready for the highlight of their day - the daily memorial at 12.55. There is music played at the bomb site, 24 hours a day. Counters all over town, reminding everyone how many days it's been since Hariri was killed).


Gemayzeh (all new, pan-european flavour).

Tribeca (electrobeats).

Downtown (every day is a public holiday).

Saturday, June 07, 2008 

Syria Planet lives on

It was supposed to be all over today. The guys behind Syria Planet no longer had the resources to keep running it. So Yaman Salahi has come to the rescue.

He is taking over the hosting and running of the site, so that we can all continue to be part of the Syrian blogosphere.

Thanks Yaman!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008 

Syria to establish embassy in Beirut

Syria and Lebanon are going to exchange ambassadors for the first time. There will be a Syrian embassy in Beirut and a Lebanese embassy in Damascus.

The two countries have never had a diplomatic relationship, because Hafez Al-Assad didn't recognise Lebanon's independence. As Hafez said, Lebanon and Syria are one country with two governments.

But it wasn't just Hafez who wanted to re-integrate Lebanon as part of Syria - every single Syrian president has made it a part of their policy. Until Bashar.

Bashar has always said, when the time is right, there will be a normal bilateral diplomatic relationship - exactly the same as the one that exists between the US and Canada, for example. Until now, Bashar said he would wait until Israel leaves Lebanon's Occupied Shebaa Farms. But now the goalposts have moved.

The announcement is due to be made when Bashar visits new Lebanese president Michel Sleiman later this month.

Sunday, June 01, 2008 

Saving Syria Planet

Syria Planet, the feed for every Syrian blog on the internet, is being taken down in one week.

A lack of resources is being blamed. But this can't happen. Syria Planet has held the Syria blogosphere together since the days when there were just a handful of blogs. Taking it down would destroy the Syrian blogosphere's public space.

And re-creating it would take a very long time. No-one - other than SyPlanet - has a decent list of every Syrian blog.

Let's save Syria Planet.

 

Not found: Occupied

Here's a search I did (top right) on a CNN story, before I decide whether to read it or not.



Click on the image to enlarge.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 

Syrian farmers in the Occupied Golan sell cherries to Syria

Syrian farmers living under Israeli occupation have asked Israel to allow them to sell their cherries inside Syria.

Living under occupation means they can not travel to Syria or visit their families, and they certainly can't send shipments of their produce into Syria. They are trapped under Israeli military rule and most of their land has been confiscated by illegal Israeli settler colonies.

But this year, they have produced an unusally large number of cherries. Selling them inside Israel, like normal, would flood the market and make prices lower for Jewish farmers.

So the Israeli government is allowing them (telling them?) to sell them in Syria.

But it's not as easy as it sounds. They need permission from Israel's Agriculture Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, and Finance Ministry first.

If it gets the go-ahead it will be co-ordinated with the UN, which will supervise the opening of the normally-closed Golan border crossing. Something similar has happened with Golani apple farmers for the past three years.

Sunday, May 25, 2008 

Under the Bombs

This is a concept film. It's experimental.

The experiment grates, and gets in the way every time it rears its head. But surprisingly, that doesn't stop this being a memorable film, with a simple, well told story.

Under the Bombs (تحت القصف) is set in the aftermath July war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006. We start at the Beirut Port, where Zeina has just arrived on the day of the ceasefire. She walks into Charles Helou bus station and searches for a taxi driver who will take her south. No-one is willing to take the risk, until Tony reluctantly agrees, for a handful of dollars.

The reason she needs to go south is to find her son, who is spending the summer away from his home in the Gulf, to visit the homeland.

So, it's a simple war-story. But what makes this film different is that it's unscripted, and like Caramel - it uses non-actors throughout (except for Zeina, Tony and two others). But it takes the concept one stage further. Almost all of the people we meet in the film are in their natural setting.

Tony is a true southerner. He takes Zeina from village to village, where she walks around asking for information from real-life locals. Tony waits for her, and sometimes, goes off to meet old friends - and, yes, they're Real People too. Some of these old friends have had their houses destroyed - "I used to live in that bedroom", one woman says, pointing up at a skeleton of a building. These side-trips feel out of place, they don't fit with the story, and they are - literally - documentary scenes slotted into a fiction film. It's weird, and it doesn't work.

Putting fiction so crudely into a very real tragedy seems like an odd concept. I didn't expect to be able to sympathise with Zeina's plight. But I did.

Perversely, Tony's character is developed better than Zeina's. A sub-story develops beautifully through the film. And it was one which kept me hanging on every word he said.

Tony's brother was a fighter in the South Lebanon Army - a Christian militia, and an Israeli proxy. The brother, and his children, fled to Israel when the Israeli Occupation ended eight years ago. And that has caused all manner of problems for Tony, who has been left behind.

So although the Real Life bits make this film look like a crude 'Israel is bad' film - it ends up being far more multi-layered.

Saturday, May 24, 2008 

Countdown

The countdown is on. In 23 hours, Lebanon will have a new president.

Thursday, May 22, 2008 

The Lebanese deal

Here are the details of the agreement:

A new thirty member unity-cabinet: 16 chosen by March 14, 11 chosen by the Opposition and 3 chosen by the president.

The use of weapons is banned in internal conflicts (but no decision on the future of Hizbollah's weapons).

Opposition camps in Downtown Beirut will be dismantled (this happened yesterday).

New electoral law (the "1960 law"), which divides the country into smaller districts - but Beirut is exempt. This is to give Christians a stronger presence.

A new president will be elected this Sunday.

 

Israel warns Syria

'Moderate' Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says if Syria wants a peace deal, it must cut its ties with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas.

 

Israel agrees to withdraw to 1967 armistice line

Syria claims that Israel has agreed to withdraw to the 1967 armistice line and hand back the Golan Heights.

This would equal what Ehud Barak offered in 2000. But it would mean a tiny part of the Golan captured in 1948 remains in Israeli hands. That is the key sticking point, because that 10 metre strip of land allows access to Lake Tiberias - an essential source of water.

Israel isn't commenting on the claim - but says these talks are being carried out with the failure of past negotiations in mind - that suggests they know what Syria wants: Lake Tiberias.

The US, EU and Palestinian president have welcomed the talks. And Israel's Prime Minister has warned his country to be ready for "painful concessions".

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 

Happy Levant

No-one knows which way to look.

To the west - where Lebanon's rival factions have agreed an all-encompassing deal to end the 18 month political crisis. The Opposition tents are being taken down, Lebanon will have a president by the weekend, and the government will finally represent the whole country. None of that would have been possible without Qatar as a genuine independent party.

Or to the east - where Syria and Israel have publicly confirmed they are in peace talks for the first time since 2000. None of that would have been possible without Turkey as a genuine independent party.

Today is a tribute to Qatar and Turkey - and shame on Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the US, Saudi and Egypt, which can't see beyond their own narrow interests.

Today has got to be the most optimistic day in the Levant since before the Iraq war. That was five years ago this March. On the fifth anniversary we looked at the prospects for Lebanon and for Syria and sighed.

Yes, it's true, the fragile agreement in Lebanon could collapse. And the Israel-Syria peace talks will probably yield nothing. But that doesn't stop the sun shining today.

Happy Peace-in-the-Levant Day.

 

SYRIA CONFIRMS CONDUCTING INDIRECT PEACE TALKS WITH ISRAEL
THROUGH TURKEY-FOREIGN MINISTRY STATEMENT

 

Lebanon presidential vote will be on Sunday

 

TALKS WITH SYRIA WON'T BE AT EXPENSE OF PEACE NEGOTIATIONS WITH
PALESTINIANS - ISRAELI OFFICIAL

 

TOP OLMERT AIDES IN TURKEY SINCE MONDAY, ALONG WITH SYRIAN
REPRESENTATIVES - ISRAELI OFFICIAL

 

SNAP SNAP SNAP: Israel and Syria in peace talks

Turkey is mediating. Israeli Prime Minister's office confirms it. The sticking point up until now was that the Israelis had wanted to keep it secret, but Syria didn't.

Can today get any better?

About me

  • Written by sasa
  • From Damascus, Syria
  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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