Saturday, April 30, 2005 

Syria and Iraq restore diplomatic ties

After a break of 20 years, Syria and Iraq have agreed to restore relations.

They'll re-open communication channels between their governments and open embassies in each other's capitals. A Syrian ambassador will soon be sent to Baghdad, and an Iraqi will move to Damascus.

Ties were broken during Saddam Hussein's war with Iran in the 1980s, which Syria opposed.

Just two months ago, George Bush withdrew his ambassador to Damascus to imply that Washington suspected Syria was behind the killing of Rafiq Al-Hariri.

Syria's Foreign Minister Farouq Ash-Sharaa said he will support Iraq "so that it can play its full role in the Arab and international arenas". Previously Syria had refused to recognise the interim Iraqi regimes.

The decision came at a meeting between Iraq and their neighbours.

Thursday, April 28, 2005 

Parliamentiary Committee says release Jaja

A Lebanese committee made up of MPs has recommended that Samir Jaja, leader of the Christian 'Lebanese Forces' faction be released.

He has been imprisoned for 11 years for war crimes committed during the Lebanese Civil War. During his trial - which began in 1994 - he was also accused of bombing a church. He was aquitted, but remained in prison, suspected of other crimes.

Lebanese opposition politicians from across the political spectrum have demanded his release as an essential step to national reconciliation. Jaja's imprisonment and the injustice has been an open wound in Lebanese society in the post-war period. The LF may not have a lot of support, but the opposition realises that Lebanon can't bury its head in the sand.

Jaja's wife Strida has been setting out the Lebanese Forces' election campaign. She said:
"The Lebanese Forces wants to forge excellent ties with Syria, ties based on peaceful neighbourhood and mutual respect and interest, as per the Taef Accord."

Just days ago, members of the LF came on to the streets of Beirut, marking the first faction to openly parade since the end of the Civil War. The organisers of the opposition protests have insisted that divisive sectarian flags be kept away.

At the weekend supporters of the LF clashed with other Christians in a knife fight which put two people in hospital.


Who are the opposition?

Lebanon's opposition movement has had many motivations ascribed to it, not least by US President Bush: winds of change - Lebanon has been motivated by Iraq's democracy.

But for the first time, a survey of Opposition members has rejected this. Only 9% of protesters are motivated by Iraq - in fact, slightly more (11%) were motivated by the Ukranian revolution! Nearly every protester (94%) was on the streets to demand an investigation into the murder of Rafiq Al-Hariri - the father of modern Lebanon. A huge majority (81%) also wanted Syrian troops out. With these two demands now met, the Martyr's Square protest is due to end this Saturday.

The survey does reveal some worrying sectarian trends. Opposition support is divided equally between Maronites, other Christians and Sunnis. While the loyalist support is overwhelmingly Shia'a.

But there is widespread support for national dialogue based on the Taef Peace Accords which ended the Civil War, and support for the opposition's decision to join a national unity government.

Interestingly Maronite Christians are divided on Hizbollah. About half support the group - which has been under US pressure - and half oppose it. Only 6% of Lebanese want Hizbollah to be forceably disarmed if there is no peace.

One thing the Lebanese agree on is interference by foreign countries. The US is viewed with even more suspicion than Syria! 69% oppose American involvement in Lebanon, but 61% oppose Syrian involvement. If Bush was surprised by the size of the 'Syria out' demos, just wait for the 'America out' demos! So maybe the killing of Syrians in Lebanon should serve as a warning to America - Lebanese hate Syrians, and they're willing to kill them, but they hate Americans more.

Syria, the US and France do find support in Lebanon - but their involvement would be welcomed by different sects (to oversimplify: Shia want Syria, Maronites want the US/France, Sunnis want France/Syria). So foreign intervention is highly divisive in Lebanon - if that's the excuse for intervention, it's flawed from the outset. The best way for the international community to unite Lebanon is to promote national dialogue through Taef - which has widespread support in Lebanon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 

American PBS News: Syria stopping fighters crossing into Iraq

Sheikh Ratha Baruth Dulaimi, one of the town's tribal leaders, has a huge homemade US flag on his front gate. It's so the Americans don't bomb me, he says.

Sheikh Ratha lives in no-man's land, the border town of Al-Hiri, just meters away from the Iraqi border - and within sight of a US military base.

"We were told to prevent crossings over the border. Anyone who does cross takes full responsibility for his actions and therefore goes to destruction. Assad is the boss." He said. (Read more here).


Sectarian violence in Beirut

Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanese Forces - two rival Christian groups - touched swords on Sunday night, using knives and metal objects in a fight at the opposition protest camp in Martyrs Square in Beirut. Phalange supporters were also involved.

The FPM supporter reportedly said to the LF members: "You will never evolve and you will not become human any time soon. He later pulled out a knife. Two youths were taken to hospital.

Members of the two rival Christian groups played down the violence. The FPM is allied to exiled warlord Michael Aoun, who has threatened to return to Lebanon on the 7th of May. When he fled to Paris in 1990, it signalled the end of the brutal Civil War. He had declared himself President at the 'alternative presidential palace'. He's one of the few Lebanese politicians to reject the Taif peace accord which reconcilled between warring factions.

The nine-week protest in Martyrs Square is due to end this Saturday. Most of the protesters' demands have been met: Syrian troops and intelligence have completely pulled out of Lebanon, Lebanon's top two Security Chiefs have quit, the pro-Syrian PM has been deposed and elections have been called for May 29th.

Meanwhile, Lebanon has cleared the final hurdle before elections can be called - Najib Al-Miqati has won a confidence vote in his interim cabinet by an overwhelming majority. The Parliament's Speaker Nabih Berri confirmed that voting begins on 29 May.


Syrian troops out of Lebanon, no Iraqi WMD in Syria

As the Lebanese Army held a ceremony to mark the departure of the final Syrian troops from its land (below) - there were 40,000 five years ago - the Iraq Survey Group published its final report saying it is unlikely there was any transfer of WMD into Syria.

It has been a key contention of the Bush administration that Syria is attempting to develop WMD and has taken stockpiles of Saddam's WMD. That's why there weren't any in Iraq! It forms one of the three key demands placed on Syria:

Bush's Iraq demand - declare Saddam's WMD, don't harbour Ba'ath members, and don't allow fighters across the border.

Bush's Lebanon demand - withdraw troops, don't support Hizbollah.

Bush's Palestine demand - close the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Today sees two of those skittles come crashing down: Syria doesn't have Saddam's elusive WMD, and doesn't have a single troop left in Lebanon.

After the ceremony in the Bekaa valley, the final 200 soldiers crossed the border, the Lebanese flag was raised over Anjar, and the 'military lane' (a special lane for Syrian military vehicles to bypass border formalities) was closed.

At the same time the UN team arrived in Lebanon to verify the withdrawal. They received a letter from Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Ash-Sharaa declaring the end of Syria's involvement in Lebanon. They'll start work soon, visiting all the former Syrian military and intelligence bases - the ones known to the public, and the hidden ones.

The UN team has already said that although the troops have gone, Lebanese militia have not disarmed - and new Christian vigilanti city-militia groups have sprung up in the wake of the Syrian departure.

Sunday, April 24, 2005 

"Tomorrow everything will be over"

Those are the words of a Syrian officer.

Every single Syrian solider and intelligence officer will have left Lebanon by night-fall on Sunday. And that includes the dreaded Anjar base in the Bekaa border region.

Syria Chief of Military Intelligence - the dreaded Major General Rustom Ghazale will also be on his way home today. He's Syria's man in Lebanon - the equivalent of Paul Bremer (and now Negroponte) in Iraq.

Last night the largest contingent of army vehicles yet headed towards the Masnaa border crossing and into Syria. 10 positions were vacated and trucks carrying soldiers were seen, along with armoured vehicles.

Only weeks ago Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad spoke to parliament and said that all Syrian troops would withdraw to the border area. Yet commentators questioned whether he meant the Syrian or the Lebanese side of the border.

Un Secretary General Kofi Annan has delayed publishing a report on Syria's progress towards UN Resolution 1559 until a UN team could go to Lebanon to verify the withdrawl. That delay drew the wrath of President Bush, who - on seeing the speed of the withdrawal - has stepped up his 'calls' for Syria to leave Lebanon. Shutting the door after the horse has bolted?

A wave of sighs spread across the Levant today.

Saturday, April 23, 2005 

Amnesty: bring Lebanese attackers to justice

US/European human rights body Amnesty International has condemned the recent attacks on Syrian workers in Lebanon. The bodies of 20 murdered Syrians have passed across the border, many of them killed by violent Lebanese right-wingers in response for the killing of Rafiq Al-Hariri, which they blame on Syria.

Amnesty calls for an end to these xenophobic attacks and calls on the Lebanese authorities to bring the attackers to trial in a hearing which meets international standards. They also want more protection for Syrians living in Lebanon.

Many of the poor Syrian workers live in tents. It's believed that many of the killings happened when the tent cities were deliberately set on fire.

Amnesty also reports that:
"in late February in ‘Aramoun, to the south of Beirut, two Syrians were killed when they were taken up to a four-storey building and thrown off the roof."

Amnesty has compiled a list of attacks:
- 31 separate incidents of Syrian workers’ temporary housing being burnt between 27 February and 23 March

- 43 separate physical attacks on Syrian workers – including with stones, sticks, guns and grenades and at times with associated robbery - between 1 March and 6 April

- two Syrian men abducted and one Syrian woman raped

- a number of Syrian workers’ vehicles being burnt or attacked

- 17 cases of threats against individuals to force them to leave the country

Meanwhile the UN is sending a team to verify the Syrian troop and intelligence pullout. The withdrawal is due to be complete next week, and the UN team will report back to Kofi Annan on the facts ont he ground. At the same time, the team will start setting up the international investigation into the murder of Rafiq Al-Hariri.


Election called, security chiefs quit

Two main opposition demands were met today. Lebanese prime Minister Najib Al-Miqati has called the election for May 29th. He said that even if Parliament does not approve the date, he will go ahead without their approval. It was feared the pro-Syrian parliament would try to delay the elections.

Also today Maj Gen Jamil Sayyed and Maj Gen Ali Hajj - two of Lebanon's Chiefs of Security resigned.

That means all of the opposition's demands have been met: elections by the end of May, an international inquiry into Hariri's death, the resignation of the heads of security, and the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence.

The Lebanese Security forces were said to be loyal to Syria, and complicit in Syria's involvement in the country. Some Lebanese blamed them - directly or indirectly - for Hariri's death. And the UN condemned them for a flawed investigation into the murder.

New Prime Minister Najib Al-Miqati had been calling for their resignation. Unlike former PM Omar Karami, Miqati has the support of the opposition as well as being close to Syria.

Thursday, April 21, 2005 

Grenade injures three in Beirut

Three people have been injured after a grenade exploded in the central Beirut area of Kola. It appears that the target was a cafe popular with labourers.

An hour later 200g of TNT exploded in Mamora, a Shia suburb in the south of Beirut.

The poor Shia of Lebanon and Palestinians have been the unnamed targets of recent opposition hostility in Lebanon. One anonymous Christian militia leader recently showed his arms stash to the BBC and proclaimed that he would never harm a Lebanese. But the Palestinians, they're another matter, he said.

Until now, the night-time bombings - which usually claim no victims - have been in Christian neighbourhoods.

For fifteen years Syrian troops kept the peace in Lebanon, but the last handful of soldiers will be gone by next Tuesday.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005 

Coup leader returns to Syria

Colonel Jasem Elwan, the man who led the 1963 coup against the newly established Ba'ath government, has returned to Syria.

The Ba'ath party took power after a troublesome and short-lived union with Jamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. They reasserted Syria's independence and took control of Syria away from Cairo.

But Elwan was one of the Syrian officers still loyal to Nasser. Unhappy with the rejection of Egyptian rule, he attempted to overthrow the Damascus government.

He failed, and fled to Egypt. He was sentenced to death in absentia.

But moderate young leader Bashar Al-Assad is trying to rewrite his father's history by encouraging the return of political refugees. Elwan was issued with a Syrian passport, and returned home. He was met at Damascus Airport by Human Rights Lawyer and opposition activist Hassan Abdel-Azim.

Ammar recently wrote that all exiles have a duty to return and reshape Syria, and play an active part in the politics of their country.

Abdel-Azim is now calling for all political prisoners to be released. Last month the Syrian Ambassador to the US said that by the summer Syria's prisons would not house a single political prisoner. At the same time the President released 312 Kurdish political detainees. Estimates put the number of political prisoners at between zero and six hundred.


Chinese factories come to Syria

Adra, in Northern Damascus, is to be the site of a huge new Chinese production line. Hundreds of Syrians will be employed in the production of goods for export.

Adra is home to an investment zone, where companies can invest and pay little or no tax. The Chinese comapnies bring with them technology, investment, and most importantly jobs.

It's not clear what the factories will be producing.


Lebanese elections one step closer

Lebanon's interim Prime Minister has won the agreement of opposition and pro-Syrian MPs for his new Cabinet - a legal requirement before an election can be called.

There had been fears that disagreement between the opposition and loyalists would delay May's elections and send the country into political quick-sand.

But now that opposition backed Prime Minister Najib Al-Miqati has selected a neutral cabinet (that was one of the opposition's conditions), an election can be called. None of the new ministers is standing for election (a full list is available here). The PM has said that the election will be held next month.

Another key opposition demand - the withdrawal of Syrian troops - looks like it will be fulfilled within days. There are just a thousand soldiers left in Lebanon.

Sunday, April 17, 2005 

International observers for Lebanon's election

Lebanese president Emile Lahoud has invited international observers to monitor next month's election. He made the call at a meeting with EU delegates.

The moves shows Lahoud's willingness to get the Europeans on board and also his commitment to the fairness of the elections.

Just days ago Omar Karami resigned, throwing the likelihood of elections into doubt. Britain's Independent newspaper even dared to proclaim that the elections would have to be postponed.

But now the opposition and loyalists have all gathered round a unity Prime Minister, the President has asked an international team to verify the fairness of the poll, and today negotiations on a cabinet begun.

Slowly the stability is returning to Lebanon's politics and all sides are getting what they want. That's the true victory of the Ceder Revolution.

Saturday, April 16, 2005 

Lebanon's new Prime Minister: Najib Al-Miqati

Najib Al-Miqati, who was nominated by the opposition, has been named as Lebanon's new Prime Minister.

But he's still quite pro-Syrian. He's seen as the perfect uniting figure to lead Lebanon into May's elections: he is the opposition's favourite as well as being quite close to Syria. He was chosen at the expense of Syrian puppet Al-Murad (the former Defense Minister).

Al-Miqati (above) is a prominent Lebanese businessman. There had been concerns that the recent political uncertainty would affect Lebanon's economy, and foreign investment. But that hasn't happened yet, and the Lebanese Lira has remained steady. Hariri, of course, was Lebanon's model businessman, and the country's richest man.

Adding to Al-Miqati's allure is his opposition to outgoing Prime Minister Omar Al-Karami. Deapite this, he is a close personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The announcement of a new PM comes after the opposition finally agreed to join the negotiations to form a cabinet. They had been refusing until their key demands were met. But now, with nearly all Syrian troops gone, and an international investigation into Hariri's murder, the opposition are focussing their attentions on the election. And getting a new PM in place is essential for that: an election can't be called without a Prime Minister in office.

The opposition is confident that it'll win a majority in Parliament, which is currently controlled by pro-Syrians.

Meanwhile Syrian troops are disappearing rapidly. There are only 4000 left, and Ministers say they'll be gone by the end of the week. Fears that the withdrawal was taking too long have now been replaced by concerns that the troop pullout is happening too fast, leaving a power vacuum. Robert Fisk, and Beirutis report that Christian vigilantis have started patrolling Christian neighbourhoods.

Friday, April 15, 2005 

More tourists visiting Syria

The number of tourists visiting Syria is up again. 1.2 million visitors entered Syria between January and March this year - that's a 5% rise.

Syria attracts visitors from around the world. It has sites preserved from many periods of history - Syria's a living history text book.

In Palmyra, there are the remains of the ancient Roman capital. Immaculately preserved columns and castles.

Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Its mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam, but the main prayer hall has a shrine to John the Baptists, where Muslims and Christians stand side by side in prayer, men and women pray in the same hall. Men and women have walked through the same souks just outside the mosque for millenia.

The Crusader castle in Krak de Chavaliers is said to be the most incredible in the world. There are other Crusader castles dotted around the country.

In the south the almost perfect black rock Roman Ampitheatre is still the scene of biannual performances in Bosra.

Syria is the only country where I've come across foreigners who are almost always living there by accident. Nearly every single one of them intended to stay for a month or six months but ended up staying long beyond then. That's the magic of Damascus.

Has Syria's recent newsworthiness attracted or dissuaded more people to visit?


Gunman crosses Golan border

Israeli military sources are claiming that a Fatah gunman has crossed from Syria into the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. They claim he wanted to abduct an IDF soldier and take him into Syria.

The man, who is said to be of Palestinian origin, from the Yarmuk refugee camp in Southern Damascus, has now been arrested.

The reports haven't been confirmed by an independent agencies, and could be Israeli troublemaking at a delicate time. Syria recently reiterated its offer to return to the negotiating table over the Golan.

There has been almost no tension on the Golan border since Kissinger negotiated a armastice almost thirty years ago. In 2003 Israeli soldiers fired across the blue line to kill a Syrian soldier. The incident before that was in 1991 when Syrian soldiers killed an IDF soldier.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005 

13th April 1975

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Lebanese Civil War.

Christians, Sunni, Shia'a, Druze and Palestinians will unite to commemorate the 150,000 who died. "Today, we declare war against the war" declared opposition MP Marwan Hamadeh.

Christian militiamen shot 27 Palestinians dead on a bus.

In true Lebanese style, art exhibitions are being held. But their location is poignant. They'll be held in Beirut's Downtown, the front line between the warring factions which was artistically restored (below) in the last decade of peace.

That was the area rebuilt by slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. His assasination in February plunged the country into political turmoil. It was the first major act of violence since the war, and there have been almost weekly car bombs since.

Thirty years on, it seems we aren't quite ready to put the past behind us.

Saturday, April 09, 2005 

Israeli and Syrian Presidents shake hands

An unprecedented handshake has taken place between Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad and Israel's President Moshe Katsav at the funeral for Pope John Paul II.

They shook hands as the funeral began, and Bashar approached Katsav again after the funeral to exchange words and shake again.

Such public communication has never happened before, bwteen the two countries which are still at war.
On many occasions over the past two years Bashar has offered peace talks with Israel, which have been flatly rejected by Ariel Sharon and George Bush. But Katsav, who was born in Iran, has always urged Sharon to keep an open mind.

There is speculation that the brief meeting may open the path to negotiations, which last collapsed five years ago.

It seems that even in death the Pope is brining cultures together. John Paul II was the first Pope to ever enter a Mosque - he visited the Umayad Mosque in the heart of Damascus's Old City on the 2000th birthday of Jesus. The Mosque has a shrine to John the Baptist.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005 

America's idea of Arab democracy: the Muslim Brotherhood

Yes you read right. The Muslim Brotherhood. Newly invigorated in their ability to challenge Arab autocrats, they've staged the largest anti-Government march in Cairo for decades. And they've also called on Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad to allow them to stand for election in Damascus.

In 1982 Syria brutally put down a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion across Syria. The city of Hama was almost razed - the old city remains as just a single street today. The group was exiled and the rest were imprisoned or executed. It was from this group that Al-Qaeda was created, and George W. Bush thanked Syria for the intelligence they were given post-9/11.

Under US pressure Bashar has already allowed some of the exiled group to return last year.

Last year the Muslim Brotherhood staged a rebellion in the Southern Jordanian city of Ma'an. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt they are considered as the unofficial opposition.


All Kurds to get citizenship

300,000 Syrian Kurds are to have their citizenship restored.

Their citizenship was revoked in 1962 by President Al-Qudsi, before the Baath Party came to power. They were 'offered' citizenship as long as they swore alliegance to the President, and revoked their claim to an independent state - those who refused were denied passports, and basic rights.

Many can not even travel within Syria, in case their ID card is requested by police. They don't have ID cards - or an identity.

Most of Syria's Kurds are decended from Kurds fleeing from brutal Turkish repression in the 1920s and 30s.

Just days ago hundreds of Kurds were released from Syrian jails - they were arrested during the football riots in Qamishli last year. It's the latest sign that Syria's approach to its Kurdish population is improving.

Sunday, April 03, 2005 

End of the holiday: 30th April

"All Syrian troops, military assets and the intelligence apparatus will have been withdrawn fully and completely latest by 30 April 2005." They were the words of Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Ash-Shara'a.

The important thing about today's announcement is that it came from Shara'a. He's the head of Syria's 'Old Guard' - hangups from former President Hafez Al-Assad's 30 year iron-grip rule.

Hafez died in 2000 paving the way for his reformer son Bashar to take the reins of power. It was feared that people like Shara'a would delay or block the withdrawal and plunge Syria's relationship with America into turmoil.


Syria to announce final pullout on Sunday

Later today, Syria will announce when the final troops will leave Lebanese soil. UN Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen met the Syrian President and Foreign Minister today, and he'll receive the plan from the President tomorrow.

Troops have been seen packing up and crossing the border all week. Current estimates put the number of Syrian soldiers at 7000, all in the border region. That's half the number of a month ago.

The UN Envoy has urged the world to deal with Syria through dialogue not pressure. It seems to be working.

Meanwhile Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt has reinforced his opposition to 'Western or Israeli' projects to destabalise Syria. He said Syria's stability is in Lebanon's interests.

Jumblatt wants “special and natural” ties with Syria “free of subservience, something which has now been lifted", referring to the troop withdrawal. He has previously blamed Syria for killing his father Kamal Jumblatt, in the 1970s.

Meanwhile the on-off resignation of characterless puppet Omar Karami (Lebanon's pro-Syrian PM) is! He'll stay in his post as Prime Minister after his pro-Syrian colleagues urged him to stay. That's what the opposition had been calling for - if he resigned the election could not be called. It was feared his latest resignation was a tactic to delay the election.

And finally, it's Saturday night so it must mean - a bomb has exploded near Beirut. Seven people have been slightly injured in the mountain village of Broummana.

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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