Monday, February 28, 2005 

Lebanese PM & Government quits

"I declare the resignation of the government that I had the honour to head. May God preserve Lebanon."

They were the words of Omar Karami as he submitted his resignation, along with the resignations of all government ministers. President Emile Lahoud accepted their decision.

The announcement comes in a day which an opposition-led vote of no confidence was being discussed in Parliament. The Government's support meant they would probably have won it.

But the clincher, it seems, was the 10,000 strong demonstration in Sa'ahat Ash-Shouhada. A cheer went up as Karami announced his resignation.

Protesters had been gathering to demand the resignation, two weeks after the murder of former PM Rafiq Hariri.

Karami's government replaced Hariri's after he quit in October. Karami was seen a characterless, weak and ineffectual Syrian puppet. But worst of all, he was blamed for the murder of Hariri - some people directly implicated him, others said that he could have done more to protect Hariri.

Its hoped a stronger and more independent PM will lead Lebanon into May's elections.

The resignation was first announced here last wednesday, but many doubted whether Karami would go through with it.

Sunday, February 27, 2005 

Dirty Politics

When you go fishing for accusations - when you try to blame everything including the colour of the sky on someone - expect it to come tumbling down.

The US wants to believe Syria's to blame for their woes in Iraq. Can't handle the Iraqi rebellion - it must be Syria's fault, they're helping the insurgency. Can't find WMD - they must be in Syria.

It demanded Syria hand over Sabawi Al-Hasan, who was directing the insurgency from Syria. He was one of the 55 most wanted, and had a $1m reward on his head. He used to be head of the mukhabaraat (intelligence) and was adviser to Saddam.

But he's just been captured by the Iraqi authorities.

But then Saddam, or his sons Uday and Qusay weren't found in Syria either even though Assad was accused of harbouring them. Maybe, just maybe, Syria's telling the truth when it says it closed the offices of Palestinian groups too?

A group of insurgents 'confessed' on Al-Iraqiya, the American-funded Iraqi channel. They proudly proclaimed they were Syrian.

The US authorities immediately cast doubt on the tape's authenticity, rendering the broadcast less than worthless. Were Al-Iraqiyah trying too hard to please their masters? Western reporters in Baghdad say it was an Iraqi government initiative to cast Syria in the worst light - they did not accuse the men of any offences.

Rory Carroll in Baghdad: "The broadcast echoed the televised confessions and humiliations of Saddam Hussein's opponents before his regime was toppled."

When you lie, try to make it believable. One man claimed to be a member of Syrian intelligence, they were in Iraq to stop America getting to Syria, they were trained in Bashar Al-Assad's home town. But why did they use knives instead of guns? "The Syrians told us to do it."

Saturday, February 26, 2005 

Syria to build cross-country highway

Syria's planning its first East-West highway. And unusually for the state-controlled country, it's to be built by a private company.

Syria is a vertical nation. Most people live along the Damascus-Aleppo axis - and it's those two cities that are the country's largest.

But the new road will run from the coast to the Iraqi border. It's hoped Syria can supplant Turkey and Kuwait's status as Iraq's gateway to the world. Iraqi exporters will get access to the Mediterranean, drastically cutting journey times from Iraq to Europe and America.

It's a sign of the massive changes afoot in Syria's that the private sector is being let in on such a massive - and political - project. Bashar Al-Assad came to power promising sweeping economic reforms, but most of these have yet to materialise.

But there has been some progress. Last year saw limited banking reforms, the removal of barriers to domestic business, the explosion of the internet, and the rapid spread of mobile phones.

Paradoxically for this state-controlled country, private enterprise is everywhere - in some cases it's more pervasive than in the West. The entire public transport system is so free-market it makes Margaret Thatcher look tame.

The bus system is made up of privately owned 8 seater minibuses running along Government-set routes. The owner-driver keeps all the fares which are set at 5 lira. Because the buses are so small, there are lots of them, so waiting time is kept to a minimum.

But even if you can't squeeze into a minibus (servees) in the lunchtime rush, there's bound to be a taxi along soon...

Few people own their own cars because of the high car tax, so there's a flood of taxis. One estimate suggests a quarter of Damascene cars are taxis! And that intense competition for customers keeps prices down.

Syria might officialy be Socialist, but there's more than a nod to Thatcher. And, erm, Bush.

Thursday, February 24, 2005 

Syrian Government announces withdrawal

In the last few minutes Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister has announced that Syria will cooperate with the UN Resolution demanding a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.

This afternoon Syrian troops have started pulling back into the Bekka valley (border region). When the troop movement is complete, it will mean that all 14,000 Syrian troops are next to the border.

Today's annoucement is significant because it came from the Foreign Ministry - its considered one of the most influencial. It's led by Farouq Ash-Shara'a (below), a hang-over from the iron-fist rule of Hafez Al-Assad.

Previous promises of a Lebanese withdrawal had come from the Syrian reformers like President Bashar Al-Assad. But the source of today's announcement adds extra credibility to the Syrian plan.


The Myth of the Beirut Demonstration?

Monday's massive march in Beirut was hailed as a turning point.

It was the first time, commentators said, that Muslims had campaigned together with Christians and Druze against the Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

Protestors even held placards with the Cresent and the Cross. United at last it seemed.

But now it has been revealed that we were conned. CNN reports that "Monday's demonstration was mainly composed of Christians and members of the Druse community".

Although I disagreed with the anti-Syrian sentiment, I was comforted by the togetherness of the Lebanese nation. The Syrian-brokered peace has held, I thought.

You see, for years a minority of Lebanon's Christians have been railing against Syria. They had shouted loudly, breaking the peace of the last decade.

Sour grapes, said the rest of the world. But Monday's demo seemed to show that it was the whole of Lebanese society that was against Syria, driven by the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri.

But now, it seems, the gathering may not have been anything different to the protests of the last decade.


Lebanese Government to quit on Monday?

The Lebanese Government, led by Prime Minister Omar Karami, is to resign.

The opposition have been calling for a vote of confidence in Parliament. And Karami - a close ally of Syria - has agreed. He was appointed after last year's resignation of Rafiq al-Hariri.

He said... "I am for the resignation of the government if that will overcome the current crisis and pave the way for a serious dialogue among all sides."

The vote in Parliament will take place on Monday, two weeks after Hariri was killed. A national strike has also been called by the opposition for Monday. On Monday this week, the opposition arranged the largest demonstration in recent Lebanese history.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005 

Lebanese Government to quit

The entire Lebanese government has agreed to resign.

Prime Minister Omar Karami has said he and all his colleagues will step down as soon as replacements are found.

The decision follows widespread protests two days ago calling for the government to quit.

The move is an attempt to diffuse the growing public dissent, following the failure of Government-opposition talks on Monday.

More to follow...


Letter to America

Before February 14th 2005, did you know who Rafiq al-Hariri was?

The US (via France) have threatened to impose sanctions on Syria, and have called for a 'Free Lebanon'. But if that's the case, why is France harbouring terrorists like Michel Aoun?

The US is counting down the days until May. They've said the elections will only be valid if Syria withdraws. By those standards I guess the Iraqi election was also illegitimate.

Syria can only gain by withdrawing. The Lebanese thorn is getting deeper and costing Syria more than just the lives of its peacekeeping soldiers.

(Sorry for this post: too much editorial, not much news!)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005 

Lebanon demonstrates

The Lebanese have demonstrated - from the Corniche, to the Saahat an-Najam. It was heart-warming, despite the fact that I disagree with their anti-Syrian anger.

That Arabs can march in Arab streets in an opposition rally.

That Muslims and Christians are marching side-by-side, many holding banners with the Cross and the Cresent.

That the people of Lebanon can call for the killers of the man who rebuilt their country - Rafiq al-Hariri - to be brought to justice.


Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon

Ignore Bush, it was Amr Moussa (the Arab League's Secretary General) doing the interesting talking today (below right).

After a meeting with Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad (above left), he announced that Bashar "stressed more than once in (our) talks his firm intention to plan a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon".

So that's it. All sealed.

He said the pullout is to happen 'soon'.

Syria is widely expected to remove all 14,000 troops from its neighbour before May's Lebanese General Election.

Otherwise, it's feared that the election will turn into a referendum on the Syrian presence.

The Taif Agreement which ended 15 years of bloody Civil War in Lebanon called on Syrian troops to move to the border and eventually agree a withdrawal plan.


Syria welcomes UN investigation into Hariri death

Syria says it 'welcomes' the UN investigation into Rafiq Hariri's death.

After his assassination last Monday fingers were pointed at Syria. They became the most likely suspects because Hariri resigned as Lebanese Prime Minister last year amid differences with his neighbour.

Not only did Syria deny involvement but they acknowledged what a tragedy the death was for Syria too. Despite recent differences, Hariri was a long-time supporter of Syria, and mediated in disputes with France and the US.

George W. Bush has capitalised on anti-Syria sentiment in the past seven days, repeatedly referring to what he calls Syria's "occupation" of Lebanon.

Sunday, February 20, 2005 

Calm Down

Since the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, the anti-Syrian movement in Lebanon has started to straddle the traditional secular divisions. Its uniting the un-unitable.

We've seen the Hariri family joining forces with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Maronite groups. The church bells tolled as Hariri's funeral procession moved towards the Mosque where he was to be buried.

But its also uniting the Lebanese in support of the unprecidented stability they've enjoyed over the last 15 years.

Nabih Berri, speaker of the Parliament and the most prominent Shia politician has called for an "open and unconditional national dialogue" based on Taif.

Taif was the agreement which ended the devistating Civil War by bringing together all elements of Lebanese society.

And its important that those words came from the mouth of Nabih Berri, because the Shia represent the biggest chunk of Lebanon's population.

He's agreed to meet opposition leaders on Monday to discuss their demands. In another good sign, the government's agreed to co-operate with a UN investigation into Hariri's death. They'd previously rejected opposition calls for an international probe.

But the calls for peace and unity come from across traditional religious divides.

In his Sunday Sermon, the Christian Patriarch, Mar Nasrallah Sfir, says that the anti-Syria rhetoric shouldn't be taken too far. It's good if it provokes debate. But not if it allows personal agendas to shine.

As Shia group Hizbollah aptly said - "God forbid, if the roof collapses, it collapses on all of us" (Hassan Nasrallah).

Thursday, February 17, 2005 

Apples to Damascus

Syria has signed its first trade deal with Israel. Ten thousand apples will soon be making their way across the border.

Syrians living in the Golan Heights are having a hard time. Their land is occupied and annexed by Israel, Ariel Sharon has rejected recent Syrian overtures to negotiate the future of the Heights and thousands more Israeli houses are to be built on their land.

The border has been closed since 1967 - families straddled across the border go to the 'shouting valley' each day. They use loudpspeakers to communicate with family members who they haven't seen for forty years (there are no telephone links).

And now the farmers can't even sell their produce.

The recent blockades of Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza have stopped the Occupied Syrians from getting access to their customers. And they aren't allowed to export.

So they've been pleading with Damascus to help them.

And amazingly Syria and Israel have agreed on something. The border - which is just 40 miles south of Damascus - will soon be open, and UN peacekeepers will bring a third of their apple crop across.

But Syria denied it was a trade deal with Israel. The fruit is "Syrian, grown on Syrian land and owned by Syrians", the Foreign Ministry said.

In recent years the border has creaked open for one-off occasions. Students have entered to study in Damascus, and women have crossed to marry.

Ehud Barak and Hafez Al-Assad were reportedly minutes away from returning the Golan Heights to Syria in 2000, and were only negotiating over a small stretch of land 100 meters wide. Negotiations haven't resumed since Ariel Sharon came to power days later.


"Ma Bafham" - "I don't understand"

What's behind the Lebanese-Syrian tension?

On Monday former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri was assasinated. By whom? We don't know.

The US and France have been digging their thumbs into Syria of late, and the US is keen to have everyone believe Syria was responsible.

But why?

Syria has 14,000 troops in Lebanon. They ended 25 years of bloody civil war in Lebanon.

But with the war over, and the final Israeli troops leaving in 2000, the Lebanese have been saying 'enough'. The Syrian troops, it seems, aren't needed any more.

Even Rafiq Hariri had been calling on them to leave, but he was still close to Syria.

At moments of US-Syria tension in the past, Hariri mediated.

He'd been a long-term supporter of the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. He was one of the architects of the Taif Accord which put an end to years of Civil War. That agrrement called on Syrian troops to remain stationed in Lebanon to keep the peace - just like the US forces which have been in Germany since the Second World War.

And Syrian Vice-President Khaddam was at the Hariri house to comfort Rafiq's wife before his funeral this week.

So what about these pesky soldiers.

They've been leaving slowly - the number has been cut in half in the last decade. And last year the final Syrian troops left the Lebanese capital Beirut. The last remaining soldiers are in the border region.

What about the rest of them? Rumours say they'll leave by the summer. And rightly so.



The more you repeat something, the more it becomes true. Syria killed Hariri. Syria killed Hariri. Syria killed Hariri.

The first White House response to the killing implicated Syria.

Then the American ambassador to Damascus was withdrawn, but not before she showed her displeasure with Syria.

If I say "you know John, he'd never kill anyone, never ever, he's not a murderer", John could sue me for libel. Why? Because I've just accused him of murder by implication.

I think the US knows what they're doing. And they're doing it very well.

At least someone's happy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005 

The Woodwork

Lebanese war-lord General Michel Aoun is back in the news. He's the man who declared himself President in the 'alternative presidential palace' in East Beirut in 1989.

His fleeing to Paris signalled the end of the Civil War. And he's been there ever since. And long may he remain there.

But now he's "threatening" to return, saying that it's "the final stage in the trek of Lebanon's liberation". Or the trek back into war?

Yesterday brought back the terrible memories of war back to Beirutis. And Aoun, at least, is happy to remember those days.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005 

The Fallout

The US Ambassador to Syria has been recalled. But not before she gave Syria's President a firm ticking-off. Always seemed funny to me that America could give Syria the evil eye but still keep their Ambassador there.

Earlier, EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana said there was no need to review US-Syrian relations. He's waiting for the results of an international inquiry.

But the US has its eyes on a different target: Syria was mentioned in their very first official response to the Beirut bomb.

They've refused to accept the Islamist group's claims of responsibility.

So who did it? It was Syria wasn't it. It's gotta be. Who else could have, would have?

The Syrians were more than a little upset with Hariri...they had an obvious motive, but maybe too obvious? Would Syria be stupid enough to shoot themselves in the foot?

Or would an enemy of Syria want to turn the heat up on Syria? Israel's adept at car bombings, they're almost certainly to blame for a spate of identical assasinations in Damascus on Palestinian leaders. The Telegraph

Strange coincidence that just 24 hours before the murder, the French government warned Syria not to kill Hariri. They'll face "total, final and irrevocable divorce with the international community" if they do, the warning said.

The size of yesterday's operation would have taken military planning (The Telegraph, Al-Jazeera).

Yesterday Beirut felt fragile again. Not just because of the size of the bomb. But because they've lost the man who rebuilt Lebanon.

Monday, February 14, 2005 

Islamists claim responsibility for assasination

An Islamist group 'Victory and Jihad in the Levant'* has claimed responsibility for today's bombing which killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

The claim was made in a video aired on Al-Jazeera, which said he was killed becuase of his links with the Saudi government.

In the immediate aftermath, fingers had been pointed at Syria, with White House Spokesman Scott McLean indirectly condemning Syria in the US's first public reaction.

Hariri had been Prime Minister for most of the fifteen years since the end of Lebanon's Civil War. He led the post-war reconstruction and nation-building, and was the country's richest man.

He resigned last September. For the second time he felt unable to play second fiddle to Christian President Emile Lahoud.

He was expected to make a comeback in this May's Lebanese General Election.

(*n.b. 'Al-Nosra wal Jihad fi bilad Ash-Sham' has been incorrectly translated as 'Victory and Jihad in greater Syria' by some outlets*)


Beirut bombing

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has been killed.

Rafiq He, and nine others, died when a massive explosion ripped through a convoy of twenty cars.

They were travelling along Beirut's corniche (sea front), past St. George's Hotel.

The attack comes less than 24 hours after the French Government reportedly threatened Syria with tough consequences if they kill Hariri.

More to follow...


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Interview with the author of Syrian News Wire

(N.B. this interview was done on 17 March 2005, but has been pre-dated so it doesn't appear in the news listings)

1. Why did you start your blog?
I wanted to take control of the dialogue about my country. It belongs to me, not someone in Washington or Paris. Commentators and politicians on the outside don't have the right to ascribe concerns and hopes on me.

2. The blog is in English rather than Arabic, why?
Before the Iraq War most Westerners didn't even know where Syria was. And now we've become the substitute Saddam Hussein, we hear the same language being used to describe Syria. What's better, for a foriegn correspondent to learn everything they can about Syria, come to Damascus, file their report and leave. Or for someone who lives here to communicate directly. It takes out a whole level of misunderstanding.

Blogs are a chance for Arabs to express views they feel are under-reported in the West; that explains the explosion of Syrian blogs in the last eight weeks - nearly all in English. It's like another window to the West has opened in the Arab World, after Al-Jazeera flung the door open.

3. What kind of impact do you hope your blog will have?
I hope it will transport people to the streets of Damascus, even if they never set foot outside their country.

4. Do you do think Middle Eastern blogs, in general, can have an impact in the region?

5. If so, what would that impact be?
Arabs have given up on Governments: local puppets and international ones alike. We've realised that the only way to change the Western interference in our land is to talk directly to the people of the West. It assumes that people in different countries can understand each other, even if their governments can't, it's an optimistic view of the world.

It's only an elite who can read and write blogs, so we shouldn't take it as representative, its no 'new democracy'.
In the battle for control of the dialogue of the Arab World, the biggest fear is outsiders purporting to be Arabs writing fake blogs. Some are easy to spot ('Iraq the Model'), some less so. The problem is that there's no electoral roll or ID cards for bloggers.

6. Do you have any concerns about your blog getting you into some kind of trouble with the authorities in your country?
We don't live under a Soviet Regime, there are no thought police. In Syria there are satellite dishes on every roof, mobile phone lines for $20, and internet access at $2 an hour.

Assad is a reformer. He's also been President of the Syrian Computer Society (some people joked that's the only thing he'd led before becoming President), so he's keen on the internet revolution: he wants to give a computer to every student. It's also a way for the new generation (like him) to suck power away from the old guard who cant get their heads around the internet.

The streets are fresh with the air of debate, and the internet's just another part of that. If people can demonstrate on the streets of Damascus and Beirut calling for reform without fear of arrest, then we can put pen to paper with clear consciences.


coming soon...

The long-promised Syrian News Wire finally has a home in the lovingly named Saroujah.

Give the little bloggy time to settle in, and quicker than you can say shlowwwwwwwn, he'll be giving you all the city's goss.


coffee and cigarettes

Ah the sweet smell of Damascene ahwee (coffee) and I know I'm home. Welcome to Saroujah.

But why 'Saroujah'? Well, it's the place I used to call home. Souq Saroujah was the first part of the city to be built outside the city walls, way back in the 13th century.

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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