Tuesday, January 30, 2007 

Prostitution in Syria - Sami Moubayed

Prostitution in Syria
Sami Moubayed
Washington Post

Prostitution was legalized and professionalized under the Ottoman Empire. Back then there was fear in Damascus that the wandering soldiers would attack or rape young Syrians. That is why affordable prostitution centers were created for them in the Syrian capital, as a form of maintaining public security. This system was maintained when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918. The destruction of World War I, along with the poverty imposed on the Syrians, however, made many young women turn to prostitution for a living and the years 1914-1918 are considered the worst in the past 100-years of Syrian history.

When the French came to Syria in 1920, they professionalized prostitution in major urban cities of Syria. Prostitution centers were registered in government records, and guarded by armed men from the colonial troops of France, mostly, from the Senegal. Any woman found to be engaged in illegal sexual conduct for more than three times would be arrested and sent to the prostitution center. There she would become an “official” employee. She would pay taxes to the central government, and receive check-ups twice a week at the Ministry of Health.

As early as 1922, there were 271 prostitutes registered officially in Syria. The Syrians knew that frequenting these places was wrong, both morally and socially, and during the early years of the Mandate, the regular customers were often foreigners and Frenchmen. By the 1930s, the practice had become common to Syrian men as well.

In 1953, the first serious attempt at combating the trend was undertaken by President Adib al-Shishakli, who passed strict laws to prevent prostitutes from entering Syria. In 1957, a group of religious men approached President Shukri al-Quwatli and Nazim al-Qudsi, the speaker of Parliament, asking them to close down cabarets, nightclubs, and all illegal venues for prostitutes. Both men were religious but the Syrian President replied: “If I create heaven for you on earth, what do we leave for the God Almighty?” The government’s job was not to interfere in the daily life of Syrian citizens, he added, but rather, try to keep a watchful eye on it. The government’s job, he added, was to collect taxes and in turn, use them to provide a safer and better living for average Syrians. Punishment for immoral action—and reward for piousness—would be given by God in Heaven.

As a result, the trend continued to flourish in Syria and was outlawed—among other things—by President Gamal Abdul-Nasser of Egypt in 1959 during the years of the United Arab Republic (UAR). The law outlawing prostitution was decree # 10.

This is part of a longer article.


Sunday, January 28, 2007 

SNAP: 29 people killed in bus crash

A bus has crashed in norther Syria killing 29 people.

It is the worst accident in a decade. It happened as the bus travelled from Raqqa to Aleppo.

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Bus crash in northern Syria

A bus has crashed on the road from Raqqa to Aleppo.

It was a fatal accident, but no idea how many people have died yet.

More soon...

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Saturday, January 27, 2007 

I'm Lebanese

Ad Blitz Satirizes Lebanon's Divides
Provocative Signs Target Pervasive Sectarianism
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

BEIRUT, Nov. 27 -- The evening was tense, as most are these days in Beirut, its Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druze perched imprecisely between war and peace. Malak Beydoun, a young woman, pulled her car into a parking lot in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh. She peered at a billboard overhead, alarmed and then indignant.

"Parking for Maronites only," it read.

Beydoun recoiled. "How did they know that I was a Shiite?" she remembered asking herself.

Part provocation, part appeal -- with a dose of farce that doesn't feel all that farcical -- advertisements went up this month on 300 billboards across the Lebanese capital and appeared in virtually every newspaper in the country. Thousands of e-mails carried the ads across the Internet to expatriates. Each offered its take on what one of the campaign's creative directors called a country on the verge of "absurdistan" -- cooking lessons by Greek Orthodox, building for sale to Druze, hairstyling by an Armenian Catholic, a fashion agency looking for "a beautiful Shiite face." At the bottom, the ads read in English, "Stop sectarianism before it stops us," or, more bluntly in Arabic, "Citizenship is not sectarianism."

The campaign, designed for free by an ad agency and promoted by a civil society group, has forced Lebanon to look at itself at a time when the country is spiraling into one of its worst political crises in years. The timing was coincidental, the message universal, in a landscape with ever dwindling common ground: The forces that dragged Lebanon into one civil war are threatening another.

Many have praised the ads for asking uncomfortable, even taboo questions about a system in which sectarian affiliation determines everything from the identity of the president to loyalty to sports teams. Some have mistaken the campaign for reality. Across the capital, one in six billboards was torn down, prevented from being put up or splashed with paint, usually the tactic of choice for conservative Muslims irked by lingerie ads.

Continues here.

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The Beirut riots - was Hizbollah to blame?

Four Shia died (including two students at the Beirut Arab University), killed by Hariri gunmen. 35 injured. The army caught...no-one.

Three Lebanese soldiers injured by gunmen. A gunman belonging to Walid Jumblatt's progressive Socialist Party has been arrested.

SSNP (Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party) offices burned down.

Welcome to civil conflict, brought to you courtesy of $48 billion of Hariri/Saudi/French/US debt.

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Friday, January 26, 2007 

Beirut under curfew

Beirut has been put under curfew for the first time since the civil war ended in 1990.

It comes a day after brutal sectarian fights led to four deaths and dozens of injuries.

Witnesses reported the Lebanese Forces militia, Hariri militia and Amal militia taking part in most of the violence at Beirut's Arab University.

But on a positive note, Lebanon has another $7 billion of debt to add to its world record $41 billion debt. Lebanon likes world records. Here's another one: Lebanon spends two-thirds of everything it earns paying interest on its debt. TWO-THIRDS.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007 

Anti-Hizbollah extremists attack Lebanese soldiers

Jund Ash-Sham militants have forced hundreds of residents in the Palestinian Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon to flee after firing rockets and mortars. They were attacking Lebanese soldiers.

The Sunni group - which is anti-Hizbollah - is thought to have ties to Sa'ad Al-Hariri.

Jund Ash-Sham terrorists have repeatedly launched attacks against the secular governments of Lebanon and Syria. They were responsible for September's attack on the American embassy in Damascus.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 

The strike begins

The escalation in Lebanon's opposition protests is underway.

The Beirut airport road has been blocked in the past hour, and hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets to block entrances to the capital.

Sunday, January 21, 2007 

Syria agrees to support Iraqi army, calls insurgent attacks "terrorism"

Syria's made a major shift in its reconciliation with Washington.

It has agreed to support the US-backed Iraqi army, and called attacks against them "terrorism". It comes at the end of a week-long visit by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

In November, Syria agreed to stop calling for an immediate withdrawal of US forces. It now says Iraq had to rebuild its army and disband sectarian militia before the foreign military presence in the country could end.

Iraq and Syria opened embassies in eachothers' capitals for the first time in a quarter of a century.


Torture in Egypt

Every day there's more evidence of new cases of torture in Egypt.

The officially sanctioned attacks continue RIGHT NOW. And they've got to stop. Kifayah. Enough.

Saturday, January 20, 2007 

Tell me what you love and i'll tell you who you are

A few weeks ago, the Siniora government started putting these posters up around Beirut.

The excellent Lebanese artist Mazen Kerbaj has come up with his own reply:

Translated, it reads:

i do not

and i do not

and i do not

and i do not even
LOVE grey

and i do not

is it possible that i also

If you want to understand what this is all about, read this. I'm sure our readers in Beirut will have something to say. Razan?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007 

The 'Golan agreement' - what does it mean

If it is ever confirmed, this is what Israel and Syria appear to have agreed:

- Israel will withdraw to the 1967 border, and Israel will recognise Syrian sovereignty over the area

- There will be a peace treaty between Israel and Syria

- The Golan Heights will be demilitarised, with only a limited Syrian police force there

- Syria will establish an embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel will establish an embassy in Damascus

- An American advance warning radar station will be operated in the Syrian Golan Heights

- The Golan Heights will be de-populated (all Israeli settlers, and all Syrian Golan residents - who have been living under Israeli occupation - will leave the Golan)

- The Golan Heights will be a national park - operated by Syria - with Israeli residents allowed to enter without a visa (but that doesn't mean Israeli residents will be able to cross over the Golan into the rest of Syria)

- The park will only be open during daylight hours

- The Golan Heights will be a no-fly zone, Syria and Israel will need permission to fly over the area


Syria-Israel peace 'treaty' - what they agreed


The objective of this effort is to establish normal, peaceful relations between the governments and peoples of Israel and Syria, and to sign a treaty of peace attesting to this achievement. The treaty will resolve the four "pillars" at the core of negotiations: security, water, normalization, and borders. There is be no agreement on any single one of these issues unless and until all of these issues are resolved.

I. Sovereignty
1. Syrian sovereignty, based upon the June 4, 1967 line in the Golan Heights, is acknowledged by Israel. The mutually agreed upon border will be determined by both parties (and guaranteed by the U.S. and the UN)

II. Framework Agreement, Implementation, and the End to the State of Belligerency
A "Framework Agreement" will address the issues of security (including early warning), water, normalization, and borders. Negotiations to reach such an agreement should proceed as expeditiously.

1. The state of belligerency between the parties will cease upon signature of a framework agreement between the parties, and will include the cessation of hostile actions by each party against the other.

2. Application of Syrian sovereignty in the Golan Heights, the establishment of normal, bilateral diplomatic relations, and the implementation of relevant provisions related to water and security will commence as soon as possible after the conclusion of a Framework Agreement but no later than the signing of a treaty of peace.

3. Implementation of the Israeli withdrawal to the mutually agreed border will occur during a period (the exact time frame to be mutually agreed) from signature of the Framework Agreement.

III. Peace Treaty
1. Satisfactory implementation of provisions and obligations established in the Framework Agreement will result in the signing of a peace treaty between the parties.

IV. Security
1. Demilitarized zones will be established in the areas of the Golan Heights that Israeli forces will vacate.

2. No military forces, armaments, weapons systems, or military infrastructure will be introduced into the demilitarized zones. Only a limited civil police presence will be deployed in the areas.

3. Both parties agree not to fly over demilitarized zones without a special arrangement.

4. The establishment of an early warning system includes a ground station on Mt. Hermon/Jabal as-Sheikh operated by the United States.

5. A monitoring and inspection and verification mechanism will be established to monitor and supervise the security agreements.

6. Direct liaison between the parties will be established in order to: Create a direct, real time communication capability on security issues in order to minimize friction along the international border; Help to prevent errors and misunderstandings between the parties.

7. Zones of reduced military forces will be established in Israel west of the international border with Syria and in Syria east of the Golan Heights. The respective depth of these zones (as measured in kilometers) between Israel and Syria will be according to a ratio of 1:4.

8. The Parties will cooperate in fighting local and international terrorism of all kinds.

9. The Parties will work together for a stable and safe Middle East, including the solution of regional problems related to the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Iran.

V. Water
1. Israel will control the use and disposition of the water in the Upper Jordan River and Lake Tiberias.

2. Syria will not interrupt or obstruct natural flow of water in either quality or quantity in the Upper Jordan River, its tributaries, and Lake Tiberias.

3. Syrian use of the waters of the upper Jordan River, its tributaries, and Lake Tiberias for residential and fishing purposes is recognized and guaranteed.

VI. Park

1. In order to safeguard the water resources of the Jordan River basin, Syrian territory east of the mutually agreed border will be designated as a Park open to all and administered by Syria. The Park is to be established in the Golan Heights upon completion of the Israeli withdrawal and application of Syrian sovereignty in accordance with the treaty of peace. The park will extend from the agreed upon border eastward to a line to be determined by mutual agreement.

2. Park characteristics:
* Park is open for tourism.
* Park will be policed by Syrian park service personnel.
* The park will be free of permanent residents except for conservation and law enforcement personnel.
* No visa will be required for entry into park [from Israeli territory].
* Syrians will issue onsite official entry permit for a nominal fee.
* Visitors wishing to enter other Syrian territory east of the Park must have a proper visa and transit Syrian controls on park's eastern perimeter.
* Entry to park is valid for one day during daylight hours.

Source: Haaretz, Israeli newspaper. Thanks Norman.


BBC trusts Israeli sources more than Syrian sources

It's an easy mistake to make, but one which highlights unspoken bias. And it's all because of these little things ' '

Let me show you why.

The BBC's headline on the Syria-Israel negotations is: Syrians and Israelis held talks.

It should be: Syrians and Israelis 'held talks'. Because it came from an ex-Israeli diplomat, and Syria has denied it.

Take this example. When Syria announced it had killed terrorists outside Damascus last year, the BBC headlined with: Syria 'kills terror suspects'. The inverted commas are used because it is a claim, not fact.

I don't think it is deliberate bias. I think the BBC are taking for granted that they trust words that come out of Israel more than they trust words that come out of Syria. That is wrong.

Al Jazeera got it right.

UPDATE 1945: The BBC has now corrected it (their reply: "Thank you for pointing out the mistake, which has now been corrected.") So...my slightly pointless anger was justified.


SNAP: Syria and Israel 'negotiating' over the Golan Heights

Syria and Israel have held secret negotiations over the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

The talks took place last year, as well as in 2004.

Both sides agreed Israel would have to withdraw to the 1967 borders, ending Israel's occupation of Syrian land, and setting up a peace treaty between the two countries.

Syria is said to have agreed to end support for Hizbollah and Hamas. Part of the Syrian Golan Heights would be open for Israelis to use as a national park, once Israel returns it to Syria.

No date was set for all of this to happen, but it's important that they both agreed what they would be prepared to do.

The talks happened in Europe, with the most recent discussion taking place during Israel's war on Lebanon in July and August.

It broke down when Syria asked for the negotations to be made public.

Both sides have denied knowledge of the talks (that is common practise with secret talks), but it could set up a framework for formal negotiations, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.


Broadband internet comes to Syria

An affordable broadband (ADSL) internet service seems to be around the corner.

There are rumours in Damascus that a new service is about to be launched. It's likely to be around SP1000 (US$20) for a 256kbps line. That's not an amazing speed but it is a good start, for a good price.

Until now, broadband has been too expensive for most people to afford.

Similar rumours swept Syria in the days before pre-pay mobile phone lines were launched in June 2003. Over the next few months, the phone companies kept reducing the prices, until it reached the $10 fee it is at now (that's cheaper than most European countries!).

So, expect to see prices for broadband falling - or, more likely - speeds increasing over the coming months.

Thanks Hasan

Monday, January 15, 2007 

Iraq's President offers kind words for Syria, defies America

Iraq's President Jalal Talabani is in Damascus.

"Syria stood with us in difficult times. I came here with a large delegation to show our seriousness about advancing our relations with Syria," he said.

Talabani lived in exile in Syria during the Saddam Hussein years. He formed his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party in Syria, with Syria's approval. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki was also exiled in Damascus.

Talabani, and his 'large' delegation, will be in Damascus for five days - that's almost a holiday, not a political visit! But then, if I had to choose between Damascus and Baghdad...

Sunday, January 14, 2007 

Egypt's human rights record - better than Syria?

Egypt has arrested Al Jazeera reporter Huweida Taha Metwalli in a human rights scandal that just gets worse and worse.

Last year police raped a male prisoner by inserting a stick inside him. To make it even worse, the abusers filmed the whole thing. Inevitably, the video found its way to the internet AFTER he had been released.

The Egyptian authorities went mad, and blamed the prisoner. He was arrested again for "resisting authority" (apparently, he didn't smile while he was being raped).

And now Al Jazeera are making a documentary about the whole thing.

Egypt has 20,000 political prisoners. Syria has 600. Neither of those numbers is a good situation to be in, but it's just a little reminder when you label states as 'moderate'.

Keep up to date with this story at the excellent The Arabist blog.


Iraq's President visits Damascus

Jalal Talabani is in Damascus for talks with Bashar Al-Assad.

It is the first meeting between the Presidents of Syria and Iraq for 25 years, and it comes amid a warming of relations between the two countries.

But some Iraqi ministers have expressed their fears that Bush is trying to divide the two countries. Bush rejected the Baker Report which advised him to talk to Syria, instead he launched into a tough speech this week when he came close to threatening military action against Syria. Many members of Bush's own party condemned him for refusing to talk to Syria.

"The timing may seem a little tricky after what Bush said," Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Iraqi politician with close ties to Talabani, told Associated Press. "But our interests differ from those of the United States. The enmity between the United States and Syria and Iran doesn't benefit the situation in Iraq."

Bashar and Jalal are talking about commerical and security issues.

Saturday, January 13, 2007 

Visiting Syria

I just got an interesting email from America:


I am an American PhD student who is coming to Damascus this summer for a month of Arabic at Damascus University.

I was wondering if you had any tips about a couple of things:

1. A place to live. While I can afford an apartment on my own, I think I'd rather be around other people who are doing what I'm doing, kind of like a hostel but with my own room. I hear the Harameen isn't so nice but cheap? I was also told to stay in Old Damascus.

2. How to get to Syria the cheapest. Do you know a travel agent who books your tickets? I am coming from California, so I expect to pay a bunch to get there....


I hope I can help. The more Americans who visit Syria will hopefully take a positive view of the country back to the States, and that can only help relations.

If anyone reading this can add to my advice, please say something in the comments section.

Here's what I've picked up over the years...

Where to live:

You mention the Harameen. It is probably the best known backpacker hotel in Damascus. It is cheap, basic and clean. There is also the Rabeea next door, which is virtually identical. Expect to pay between US$4 and US$12 per night, depending on the room (single or dorm). Some rooms have en-suite showers and toilets, others are shared. It's not a bad option, but don't expect luxury.

They both have a very friendly feel, and you will always find travellers swapping tips and chatting with staff in the lobby. Pop in for a chat even if you aren't staying there.

These two hotels are big old Damascene houses based in the last remaining 'old' part of Damascus outside of the Old City itself: Souq Saroujah (which gave this blog its name!).

Whatever you do, avoid 'hotels' at the nearby Merjeh Square. Most are unclean, have no windows, and some double up as brothels. At the other end of the scale, the Sheraton, Semiramis, Meridien, Four Seasons and Cham Palace are the capital's luxury hotels, expect to pay hundreds of dollars.

But if you fancy just a little bit more luxury than the Harameen/Rabeea can offer, a good bet is the Hotel Majed. Ask taxi drivers for the Russian Cultural Centre (a short walk from Souq Saroujah), it's in a back street just before the Centre. Expect close to European standards, with good views of Jebl Qassioun (the mountain) and en-suite for around US$30.

As for living more permanently...most foreigners choose Bab Touma - the Christian end of the Old City. There are only a couple of hotels in the Old City, and they cost hundreds of dollars per night. A couple of years ago, there were none. But finding a place to live isn't so hard. There are plenty of old houses renting out rooms, I'm not sure about costs, but ask around and you'll find something pretty easily.

How to get to Syria:

This, I'm not so hot on. I can't say I've ever travelled to the US, but there are plenty of readers who will be able to help you out. I know flights to London are about $600 on Syrian Arab Airlines. So it may be cheapest for you to fly into London (or Paris) first.

Also, look at flights to Beirut. Taxis from the Lebanese capital are quick and plentiful, costing about US$10 for a space in a shared taxi.


US Defence Secretary: no attack on Syria

Robert Gates, US Defence Secretary says Bush's speech "I believe refers strictly to operations inside the territory inside Iraq -- not crossing the border."

General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed: "from a military standpoint, no need to cross the Iranian border," he said.

"We can track down, and are tracking down, have added resources to going after the networks in Iraq regardless of where they are coming providing tools to kill our troops."

Friday, January 12, 2007 

Russia demands to know the 10 countries blocking the Hariri inquiry

Syria is blocking the UN inquiry into the assassination of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. We kept hearing those words from Bush, Rice and Bolton.

Not any more!

UN investigator Serge Brammertz now says Syria is "fully co-operating" BUT he says TEN countries aren't. He won't name them. Russia is demanding to know the ten countries blocking the UN inquiry - because they might just have something to hide.

Arab media claims the states include France, Britain, the United States, Turkey and Israel. "If [that] information is correct, there is practically no chance that the UN Security Council would finally agree" to demand the names to be made public.

The moves have already been blocked twice by the UK, US and France, but Russia is persisting.


US: no attack on Syria

Reuters: "U.S. officials said their plan was to disrupt such networks while staying inside Iraq."

While she was being challeneged about whether Bush is allowed to invade Syria, Condoleeza Rice said: "Obviously, the president isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to take down these networks IN Iraq."

It came just hours after US troops broke international law by invading an Iranian consulate building in Irbil in northern Iraq.

Syria's Vice-President Farouq Ash-Sharaa says the American plan to send 21,500 more foreign troops to Iraq will make the problem worse: "Increasing the number of American forces in Iraq...is to throw oil onto the fire."

Thursday, January 11, 2007 

Bush threatens Syria - but is he threatening to attack?

"Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity - and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria.

These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops.

We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

It is hard to tell what the implications of this statement are. But my reading of it suggests Iran is at risk of attack, Syria is at risk of further isolation.

This is why. The only direct mention of Syria is here: "We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria." Now, interrupting the 'flow of support' suggests a diplomatic offensive - putting pressure on the Syrian government.

On Iran, Bush is more direct: : "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces." Here, he blames the Iranian government for American deaths, and threatens to 'disrupt attacks' on US forces.

Bush says Syria is backing the insurgency, while Iran is actively helping the attacks.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007 

Syrian singers win international music award

Lena Chamamyan and Basel Rajoub have won the first ever Radio Monte Carlo Moyen-Orient Music Award.

It was held at the Al Hussein Cultural Centre in Amman. Lena has studied eastern classical music at the Aleppo Conservatory. She has also ventured into jazz and traditional Armenian music.

Basel Rajoub is an Aleppine, who also studied at the Conservatory (eastern and European classical music). He blends eastern and western influences to create unusual sounds, mixing piano and bass.

The award is open to anyone aged under 25 in an Arab country. The winners collect €6000 and a promotional campaign on Radio Monte Carlo.

Saturday, January 06, 2007 

Syrian Women

Syrian women - leading the Arab world (from Restless in Dubai).

Syria's Vice President Najjah Al Attar is the first women in the Arab world to reach such a high position.

The head of the judicial system, the Republic's General Prosecutor is a woman.

In 1979, Syria had the first female minister in the whole region.

14% of the Syrian parliament are women - that's the highest in the region, other Arab states have an average of just 3.4%.

98% of girls pass the basic education and 51% of the university graduates are females - equal to the European average, and well above the international average.

Syria has 170 women judges, 250 female assistant judges.

Join the lively discussion on this issue ... click on 'comments'

Wednesday, January 03, 2007 

Syria poised to assert itself

Syria poised to assert itself
By Seth Wikas, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post

Hafez Al Assad, the father of Syrian President Bashar Assad, established Syria's primacy in the Levant and transformed a country ravaged by nearly 30 coups in 24 years into a country led by one leader for nearly 30. The elder Assad made sure that Syria manipulated events in the Middle East, and not the other way around. Seeking greater influence outside his borders, he succeeded in bringing Lebanon under his heel and made Syria a main patron of the Palestinian cause.

Although Bashar Assad does not possess the same state-building skills as his father, the US quagmire in Iraq, Syria's strong ties to rising power Iran and Damascus' support of Palestinian terrorist groups have all recently converged to offer Assad his first real opportunity to manipulate Middle Eastern affairs on a grand scale.

With Washington and Tel Aviv shutting their doors to dialogue, Assad is forging his own way ahead in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The US and Israel think Syria will be a regional "spoiler", but neither country is offering enough or threatening enough to make Syria a "helper".

Over the past few weeks, Syria has woken up to its two most pressing problems: the continuing deluge of Iraqi refugees and a dire economic crisis. Syria's resources to deal with its 800,000 (and growing) Iraqi refugees are stretched to the breaking point, and this problem is more important for it to address than the international community's wish that Syria stop the 150 foreign fighters who cross each month into Iraq from Syria's eastern border.

Syria is also keen on stabilising this border in order to restart the Syrian-Iraqi oil pipeline. In the 1990s, oil discoveries in eastern Syria fuelled Syria's economy, accounting for more than 50 per cent of exports.

From 2000 until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria illegally imported discounted crude from Iraq for its domestic needs, while exporting its own oil on the international market. By 2009, Syria could become a net importer of oil. With oil production decreasing and an economy slow to reform, the country is headed for an economic crisis.

Saving Syria, of course, is Iran, which has invested many millions of dollars in the country. This financial assistance and Iran's growing influence in the Gulf have changed a previously balanced relationship to more of a patron-client arrangement.

Syrian-Iranian ties have also changed Syria's sphere of influence in Lebanon. While Hezbollah vies for greater influence in government, and the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri drags on, it is unclear whether Syria will regain the supreme hegemony it once had in Lebanon.

What is clear is that Syria still plays a dominant role in Palestinian politics. With Hamas leader Khaled Meshal ensconced in Damascus, Assad is a welcoming host, allowing his guest to be the main arbiter in the formation of any viable Palestinian government. Assad has indicated a willingness to conduct peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions, but the full return of the Golan Heights has been and always will be the price of Israeli-Syrian peace. At this point, such a return seems unlikely.

Like any other country, Syria does what is in its best interests. The crisis in Iraq affords Syria the opportunity to lurch forward in dealing with its economic and refugee problems, and it will use this progress as leverage against other states. While it vigorously protects key Palestinian leaders, Damascus' strong ties with Iran insulate Syria from Israeli military action. Without official Israeli or US interest in engagement, Syria continues to solidify an axis that grows increasingly impenetrable.

Assad's father would be proud.

Seth Wikas is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (Thanks Norman)

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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