Monday, May 30, 2005 

Democracy campaigners released: the Atassi 8

The eight political activists arrested a few days ago have all been released.

There were part of an anti-government political forum, allowed under Bashar's 2000 reforms. But their arrest last week sparked fears that hopes for a renewed 'Damascus Spring' were over.

One of the released men Hassan Odat said "We were not held in solitary confinement or otherwise mistreated...It was more like a dialogue than an investigation."

The government said they had been arrested to investigate their involvement with an outlawed group (the Al-Qaeda linked Muslim Brotherhood).

The group is expected to re-convene soon.

Sunday, May 29, 2005 

Sa'ad wins the whole of Beirut

Sa'ad Al-Hariri has claimed the whole of Beirut. He won 9 of the 19 seats before the polls even opened. His party is claiming that he has won the whole city. Unprecedented.


Who voted?

The first round of the Lebanese elections is over. But did anyone turn up? Official turnout figures are dismal, at just 28% - that's just over a quarter.

But it's not surprising, given that nine out of Beirut's 19 areas already cancelled their vote because all of Sa'ad's rivals pulled out after he struck deals with them.

Lebanon's democracy, it seems, is run by money - not military. And the Lebanese have let their voice be heard in the most powerful way possible - by rejecting the fig-leaf election.


Lebanon votes - or not

Beirut has started voting, in the first election without Syrian troops for 30 years. Except that half of Beirut wont be voting at all. All of the candidates withdrew to give Sa'ad Al-Hariri, son of murdered Rafiq, a clear run.

It was Rafiq's murder in February that forced the hasty Syrian troop withdrawal, and focussed international attention on today's vote.

Syrian troops must withdraw - said Bush and Chirac - so that Lebanon can have its first free and fair vote.

But then all of Sa'ad's rivals in 9 areas of Beirut withdrew. They had cut deals with Sa'ad's Future Party to share the trappings of power with him, in return for giving him a clear run. They also got a refund on their registration fee. They've crowned Sa'ad the new Prime Minister.

Cynicism has replaced optimism. Neither free, nor fair.

So much hope, so much expectation, and before the Lebanese people could open their mouths, the politicians have imposed Sa'ad on Lebanon. Welcome to Arab democracy.

Thursday, May 26, 2005 

Syrian Ambassador: 1200 fighters arrested at Iraqi border

Syria's Ambassador to the UN Fayssal Mekdad says they've arrested 1200 people at the border in the past few weeks. Most of them were foreigners, from Kuwait, Saudi, Libya and Yemen, and were trying to enter Iraq to fight.

It is the first time that Syria has admitted that fighters were crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border to fight.

It's also the first time that Syria has acknowledged how high the co-operation with the US Army goes: "We gave a lot of information to the United States on these issues, which prevented many attacks, but regrettably, the United States did not recognise such kind of help."

America has put pressure on Syria to prevent fighters crossing into Iraq. Syria says that America went back on an agreement to provide money and training for Syrian border guards. America has also been blamed for not securing the Iraqi side of the border.

It is unclear why Syria has made this sudden announcement, but it is possibly to show the US that they are doing what the US is demanding. Recently Syria has cracked down on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme Muslim group, with ideological connections to Al-Qaeda. They want to show that Syria shares a common enemy with America, and is dealing with Muslim militants.

Or is this a Libya situation: deny that you have a problem - and then invent the problem so you can get rid of it. No, we have no nuclear weapons.....oh ok, look, look, we DO have nuclear weapons, but now we're going to get rid of them - can we be your friends now?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 

The last free political forum - closed

Mukabaraat agents have closed the last remaining dissident political group in Syria - the Jamal Atassi forum - by arresting its eight leaders.

The arrest comes just days after one of the men read a statement in the name of the Al-Qaeda-linked 'Muslim Brotherhood' at an Atassi meeting.

The forums sprung up when President Bashar Al-Assad came to power in 2000. That period of growing political freedoms was called the 'Damascus spring'. Independent newspapers, dissenting politics, criticism of the government, and even open political groups - the 'forums' - were permitted until the security services felt their authority was being challenged. They slowly started clamping down, against the will of the President, in 2002.

Bashar still talks of reform, and the current 'hands off' period is starting to be called the second spring. It'll cumulate - say Western diplomats and analysts - with radical reforms at the Baath Party conference in June (the first conference since Bashar came to power). Others are more sceptical.

That's why the closure of the Jamal Atassi group seems so surprising - or maybe just a last gasp of the old guard? Ammar Qurabi of the Arab Organisation of Human Rights holds out hope that the closure and arrests are just an investigation.


And the UN says it's Bye Bye Syria

The UN has confirmed the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanese land. They said that they couldn't confirm whether all intelligence officers had left too (well, they are supposed to be 'secret' aren't they - although with Syrian mukhabaraat, they stand out like a sore thumb, everyone knows their friendly neighbourhood mukhabaraat!).

It's the final official step in the Syrian withdrawal. It is now official: Syria's presence in Lebanon has ended - after 30 years. We might wait another thirty years before the American 'carrot' is presented to Damascus.

Sunday, May 22, 2005 

Aleppo: the Islamic World's 'City of Culture' 2006

Aleppo has been named as the 2006 City of Culture by the 'Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization' - a world body.

The city rivals Damascus in its claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is at least 5000 years old. And it has been the centre of empires and civilisations throughout history.

The city has also been home to many great scientists and founders of Islamic culture.

The city will host exhibitions and events, as well as showcasing documentaries. A website will be launched soon - and you can find it here first.

Archaeologist J Sauvaget wrote:

"Of all the towns of Syria, it is Aleppo that leaves the profoundest impression upon the visitor."

"Cradled in a bowl of dry hills in northern Syria, the city of Aleppo has a grave and dignified front of a traditional Arab city, although it's rules are more relaxed than neighboring countries."

"It's been a luring point for passing traveler with it's fine Arabic tradition, architecture and trade. Since Roman times, Aleppo has been an important trading center linking the countries of Asia and the Mediterranean and is though to be the oldest trading town in existence, with some 50 centuries of commerce in it's rich history. Aleppo has one of the biggest and best souqs in the Middle East. National specialties include cotton, grain, pistachios, olives and sheep."

Even with my outlook on the world being shaped by Damascus, even I can put traditional Damascus-Aleppo rivalries behind me to congratulate Aleppo! But don't forget, Damascus is the 2008 City of Culture!

Saturday, May 21, 2005 

Hama killer Rifaat to return to Syria

The mass-murderer Rifaat Al-Assad is returning to Syria 20 years after he was forced into exile in Europe.

He led the team to 'quell' an uprising in the Northern city of Hama. Days later 20,000 people were dead, and most of the millennia-old city was flattened.

He pushed tanks through the city to destroy a city he couldn't win. His opponents were the Muslim Brotherhood (spiritual grandfathers of Al-Qaeda) who are also seeking a return to Syria after the disastrous coup attempt.

A couple of years later Rifaat attempted a bloody coup of his own - against his own brother. He claimed to have established a free independent state of Lattaqia - all under his control. He fled days later.

Many in Lebanon believe that Rifaat was connected with Basil Al-Assad's death. Basil (Bashar's brother) was being groomed for the Presidency when he died in car crash at Damascus Airport. He had a great deal more support than even Bashar has, and was seen as the people's (not just his father's) choice for President.

When Bashar Al-Assad came to power in 2000, Rifaat made an announcement that he was the only legitimate president of Syria - all the way from London.

This time round he claims that he is returning to "fulfil his political responsibilities".

With Lebanese warlord Michel Aoun, the Muslim Brotherhood and Rifaat Al-Assad all returning, and Samir Jaja's campaign to be let out of a Lebanese prison almost over, the Levant is a more dangerous place than it was last night.

Friday, May 20, 2005 

Berri: full independence within grasp

Lebanon's Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri has announced the establishment of a Lebanese Embassy in Damascus, and a Syrian Embassy in Beirut.

It would be the final step in establishing full bilateral relations, and would signal that Syria has come to accept Lebanon's full independence.

In a similar vein Berri announced that the two countries are to set up a joint negotiating committee, ready for any future peace negotiations with Israel "should the Jewish state have mercy on us". Previously Syria had negotiated on Lebanon's behalf. It is generally accepted that joint negotaitions will bring about better results than if Israel is able to play the two countries off against each other.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005 

Opposition says 'no' to warlord Aoun

The two opposition leaders set to sweep the polls at this month's parliamentary elections have rejected Michel Aoun's pleas for co-operation.

The power-hungry warlord has been turned down by Saad Al-Hariri (who has already won half of Beirut) and Walid Jumblatt.

Aoun visited his arch foe and Lebanese warlord Samir Jaja in a desperate attempt at making a pact through Jaja's prison bars today. He tried to get on the Jaja-Jumblatt ticket, but Jaja said no. The last time these two men fought to get power they managed to slaughter thousands of Lebanese civilians between them.

Aoun the liberator has now dismissed the anti-Syrian opposition as not even exisiting. They are not reformers, just opportunists he says. Well, he'd know about opportunism on the day of his friendly visit to Jaja's cell.

He has condemned all of Lebanese policians as being traditionalists because they wont work with him. I am the only reformer, he has claimed.

Experts expect him to win five or six seats in the 128 seat parliament, although he likes to think he has the support of up to half of Lebanon. He was planning to nominate 40 members of his party for election, but after facing rejections from all other parties, he'll just put a handful up for election.


Saad Al-Hariri wins 8 seats in Beirut

Nearly two weeks before the elections begin, and Saad Al-Hariri has already won nearly half of the Parliamentary seats in Beirut.

The shock came after all the other candidates in those seats withdrew to make way for the Hariri ticket, handing him the win by default. Voters will now not go to polls in nearly half of Beirut.

Saad is the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, who was killed by a massive roadside bomb in Beirut three months ago. Saad is expected to pick up on the huge wave of sympathy and win a landslide in the May/June Election.

His opponents quit after he declared his candidacy on Sunday. They'll now get a refund of half of their $7000 election fee.

Meanwhile arch foes and Lebanese warlords Michel Aoun and Samir Jaja made a pact through Jaja's prison bars today. They agreed to work together to pick up votes. The last time these two men tried to get power, the fight between Aoun's men and Jaja's men killed thousands of Lebanese civilians.

Saturday, May 14, 2005 

News from the border

Villagers in the Syrian town of Showaiyeh were woken on Thursday night by heavy fighting in Al-Qaim, one mile away. But Al-Qaim is across the border in war torn Iraq, and Showaiyeh is on the Syrian side of the border.

Residents hear the sound of warplanes, and bombing, which shake their houses to the foundation. They watched helicopters attack the town from their rooftops, and hear small arms return fire.

"Smoke was rising in the air from al-Qaim" said one Syrian.

This is the area where Syria built a 12 foot high sand barrier in November last year, under American pressure.

The US occupying forces in Iraq have accused Syria of not preventing fighters cross the border into Iraq at hotspots like Al-Qaim. That's how the justified the assult on Al-Qaim. But Al-Qaim's Mayor scoffed at claims that Syrians had passed through his town. Syrian residents near the border have been watching as Syria has pulled down the shutters between the two countries. There are rumours that American special forces will soon launch a small ground mission into Syria to pick up insurgents.

The fact remains: out of the 10,000 people in Iraqi jails accused of fighting, only 56 are Syrian - there are more Jordanians.

UPDATE: Syrian troops have been moving towards the border, after reports that the American army pushed insurgents out of Al-Qaim in the direction of the Syrian border. (If insurgents cross into Syria, can Syria complain that America isn't doing enough to prevent fighters entering Syria?)

Friday, May 13, 2005 

Syrian opposition: 'no' to regime change

"We refuse a forced change of the regime by a foreign power...This is a red line", says Hasan Abdul-Azim, the head of a Syrian coalition of banned opposition parties.

Their battle is now against American threats towards Syria. The irony for Washington is that their hostility towards Syria has actually increased support for the government. It has also entrenched the government, and made reform more difficult.

However, diplomats and analysts believe that the President will finally usher in radical change to Syria at this June's party conference. Reformist President Bashar Al-Assad has already crossed one of Syria's so-called red-lines by withdrawing from Lebanon.

Some have suggested a degree of political pluralilty will be allowed - with independent parties allowed. Others suggest that independent newspapers will be allowed to operated freely (they were allowed in 2000, but the last one 'Ad-Domari, recently closed under government pressure). There are also hopes that the emergency law will fianlly be lifted.

Despite a healthy and hopeful Syrian-based opposition, there was universal condemnation for parties with no local support, like the US-based 'Reform Party of Syria'. The party's leader, Farid Ghadry, is derided as a war salesman, of the Ahmed Chalabi/Michel Aoun school of politics.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005 

Rebirth of the Golan

A multi-million dollar hospital has opened in Qunaitra, the capital of the Golan Heights.

Qunaitra is on the edge of the Golan Heights - nearly all of the Heights have been occupied by Israel for 30 years.

The hospital is a hugely symbolic statement. For years the Syrian government refused to rebuild Qunaitra. They left it just as it was given to them after the Israelis pulled back. The occupiers had flattened every single building, and riddled the hospital with bullet holes (below).

But recently the government said it would rebuild Qunaitra - partly to re-establish life in the former thriving mountainous capital, and partly as a step towards rapproachment with Israel, whose tanks patrol the Western rim of Qunaitra.

A four lane highway is quietly being built between Damascus and Qunaitra, and a crop of apples was recently allowed through from the occupied part of the Golan. It came after an unprecedented deal between Israel and Syria.

The major new hospital has been financed by Syrian ally Japan. It boasts 40 specialist physicians, and will provide health care to the neighbouring governorates of Dera'a and Suweida.

It has 200 beds, and some of the most advanced equipment in the world. Thousands have benefitted in the hospital's first month of operation.

Sunday, May 08, 2005 

Aoun: Lahoud shouldn't resign

Returning warlord Michel Aoun has attempted to divide Lebanon's opposition further.

He says that Lebanese President Emile Lahoud should not resign. That's despite the unrelenting opposition cries for him to step down. He is seen as being at the centre of curruption in Lebanese politics. And recently he's become the number one target for the opposition. But not, it seems, for the self-proclaimed 'grandfather of the opposition' Aoun.

Aoun wants to stand for President. But he doesn't want Lahoud to resign before a Presidential election, because then the replacement would be picked by current Parliamentarians. And of course Aoun isn't in Parliament yet, and has little support from Lebanese MPs so he wouldn't be in the running.

Aoun watch: One day after return: Aoun's selfish greed already supplants the wishes of the opposition.

And it seems Lebanon's opposition realises this: "Until now I haven't heard [from any of the opposition leaders]...I assume silence after a certain period means rejection" he said today.

Your fade into irrelevance beckons Mr Aoun.


Napolaoun returns

Lebanese General*/Prime Minister*/President* (*depending on his mood) Michael Aoun has returned to Beirut. I've come to save you, it's ok now - let's continue where we left off 15 years ago: "Today is a day for joy, a day for jubilation. I'm back."

Now, where exactly did we leave off 15 years ago. Ah yes, he extended the Civil War by a year, prolonging the suffering of Lebanon. Aoun was installed as interim Prime Minister in 1988 to help work towards elections. But as a supporter of democracy, he ignored the elections, insisted that he should stay on as PM and exploited his position to help his military campaign. And this is the man who might run for office this month.

Even after a new PM was elected, he still didn't accept that he should step down, so he set up the the 'alternative Presidential Palace' - Lebanon had two Presidents. Some say the Civil War would have ended a year earlier if he had not persisted - his extra year of war was the bloodiest since the war began in 1975.

A year before he fled the country in his pyjamas, the rest of Lebanon had said enough - they agreed to stop fighting, and all elements of Lebanese society eventually signed up to the Taef Peace Accords - except, that is, our friend Michel Aoun.

Some of his biggest enemies are in the Christian community. They believe he sacrificed them for his personal ambition, and left them divided and in a weaker political position coming out of the war.

When he arrived back in Lebanon yesterday he was driven to Martyrs' Square to speak to a packed audience. Except that nearly all of the protesters took their camps down a week ago. Only Aoun's FPM party was left standing.

He has promised to fight corruption (oh, there's that word fight again) even though he was convicted of embezzling state funds.

"I am the grandfather, the father and the son of the opposition" he proclaimed. That's interesting. I'd say the grandfathers of the opposition are the hundred and fifty thousand people who died at the hands of warlords like him, the millions who've painstakingly rebuilt Lebanese society, the people of the camps and slums and prisons who fought an Israeli occupation, and Syrian military presence. Was Aoun, with his baguettes and his panoramic apartment overlooking the Sienne really the inspiration for Lebanon's opposition?

Aoun with his civil war mentality, who hasn't witnessed Lebanon's revitilisation, reconcilliation and rebirth, will do whatever it takes to finally make something of himself. Even if that means trampling over the bones of the man who rebuilt Lebanon: Rafiq Al-Hariri. Aoun really is the anti-Hariri.

Robert Fisk: "Life in [Aoun's "liberated"] East Beirut was becoming more like life in Baghdad than a 'free' Lebanon."

Friday, May 06, 2005 

Orthadox American Jew in talks with Syrian Government

"My biggest problem since I left Syria was that no one in Israel believed that the event actually took place, or that a religious Jew would be treated this way in the capital of Israel's fiercest foe."

In between speaking at seminars in Israel Marc Gopin, an orthadox American Jew, the James Laue Chair at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, was persuaded to go into the black hole - the country that, according to many Israelis, doesn't exist: Syria.

He came to take place in a debate at the Assad Library, attended by top government officials, professors, dissidents and the US*, Canadian and Swiss Ambassadors.

He says he faced a tough time, but that some members of the audience "expressed deep appreciation for my willingness to come and listen. We had a great, tough dialogue."

He calls for engagement with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. "What all parties need most now", he says, "is not the immediate resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations, but a palpable thaw in relations, [and] significant gestures of cultural and economic rapprochement."

Read his personal account here.

(*the debate was on January 6 - one month before the US Ambassador was recalled)


Explosion near Beirut injures 6

An explosion in Jouneih, 10 miles north of Beirut, has injured 6 people according to LBC, Future and the Red Cross. The cause of the explosion is unknown.

It's the second blast to hit the elite playground of Jouneih. During the Civil War, those who could afford it came to Jouneih to carry on partying.

But this time round it seems the port city is not immune.

It happened just after 9pm.

In the weeks since the Syrian peacekeeping withdrawal armed militias have been coming on to the streets openly for the first time since the Civil War, and there have been clashes.

Warlord and pretender to the throne Michel Aoun - whose fleeing from Beirut marked the end of the Civil War - is threatening to return from exile...tomorrow. Charges against him were recently dropped.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 

US Ambassador to return to Damascus

Margaret Scobey (below) was recalled to Washington just days after the murder of Rafiq Al-Hariri. Her last act as Ambassador was to serve a harsh letter to the Syrian government. Her withdrawal was to focus international attention on Damascus, and imply that Washington held Bashar responsible for the killing.

It was widely assumed that this marked a turning point in the deterioration of US-Syria ties. From here on in, the only possible end would be regime change. No US Ambassador would set foot in Damascus until Bashar was out of office.

But Syria steadily assented to international pressure. Against all expectations Syrian troops pulled out as promised. And next month Lebanon will hold free elections.

True, the US is still doubtful that Syria's intelligence have been completely withdrawn. But they've made it clear that they'll judge Syria on the success of the Lebanese elections.

Western diplomatic sources (who were quoted by the official Kuwati News Agency KUNA) said that if Scobey is to return, it wont be before the elections. Is this the first sign of an American carrot?


Lebanese PM complains: Syrian troops are still on our land

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Al-Miqati has insisted that the Syrian army base at Deir Al-Ashayier is actually on Lebanese land.

He says that he'll discuss the base when he makes his first foreign trip as PM, to Damascus on Wednesday.

Locals are angry that their Syrian neighbours didn't withdraw along with the 14,000 Syrian troops based in Lebanon. Fahed Ayoub, head of Deir al-Ashayier municipality says he is gathering proof to demonstrate that the base is on their side of the border.

Deir Al-Ashayier is in an undemarcated mountainous area. The border has never been clearly defined. Syria insists the base is 300 meters inside Syria, but Lebanese locals complain that it's actually a few hundred meters on their side of the border. The truth is, no-one knows.

The base in this border region was established years before 1976, when Syrian troops flooded across the border to quell the civil war. And troops at this base never fell under the command of the Syrian Army in Lebanon.

The two countries have set up a joint committee to decide which side of the border the base is on.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005 

13 Islamists arrested in Lattaqia

Thirteen students have been arrested in Lattaqia, on the Syrian coast. They are accused of forming an Islamist group called Sunna Al-Haya.

The details come from a Syrian minister, and the solicitor for the students.

The villages outside Lattaqia are the centre of Syria's Allawi minority (from which most senior ministers come from).

Syria's most organised opposition force is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation which tried to overthrow the government 20 years ago.

Monday, May 02, 2005 

Syria's Jews

It's commonly accepted that Syria's Jews were ethnically cleansed. They were forced out, threatened and attacked until their existence became impossible in Syria.

A Jewish house near Bab Sharqi in Damascus's Old City (by Annie).

But Bridgid Keenan reports that in the early 90s, following the Madrid Peace Conference, many Syrian Jews came under immense pressure to leave from US Jewish groups. They were promised $400-600 per month (the average wage in Syria is $150 per month) according to a Syrian Jewish community leader. Green cards and visas were facilitated by the US government.

It shocked the diplomatic community in Syria - including the US embassy!

Today there are less than a thousand Jews left in Syria. Most in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, Damascus and Aleppo and Qamishli.

Sunday, May 01, 2005 

Regime Change

Flynt Leverett (below), who served in George Bush's first administration, and wrote "Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire" claims that George Bush has moved towards a policy of regime change in Syria.

But he doesn't want it by military means, he wants it 'on the cheap' - by destabalising Syria.

That's why Washington piled on the pressure for Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon. If Syria disagreed, Bush could keep up the rhetoric and use the UN to isolate Syria. But now that Syria has withdrawn, the hope is that the shock to the Syrian government - along with the growing risk of civil war in Lebanon - will cause it to fall.

But to the dismay of Bush, the pullout seems to have strengthened Bashar's government.

But Leverett claims that the Bush policy hasn't been properly thought through. The most likely replacement for Bashar's government is an Islamist one. Syria's main opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood (out of which Al-Qaeda was formed), but its leaders are currently in jail or exile. Syria's been winning its 20 year battle with the Brotherhood - a fact that America acknowledged when it thanked Syria for the intelligence on Al-Qaeda that it received after September 11th.

Syria surprised everyone by the speed of its withdrawal, but Bush is determined to keep up the pressure. It has reframed its demands on Damascus: Syrian troops haven't fully withdrawn, they say - even though the UN hasn't submitted its report on the pullou - and Syria musn't interfere in the elections.

Most contentiously, Bush is now demanding that Syria "allow" Hizbollah to "disband and disarm". That's interesting. How can they - Syria has withdrawn! And besides, most Lebanese don't want Hizbollah to be disarmed. Hizbollah are the largest political force in Parliament - so by that token, the US Republican Party should also disband.

Yahya Sadowski from the American University in Beirut says that Bush has come to believe that democracy will always emerge out of turmoil and instability - democracy is a 'natural' state for all human beings. So why not cause that instability in Syria. For Bush, it seems democracy has become a religion, not a policy.

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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