Friday, September 30, 2005 

Syrian 'opposition' conference in Paris attracts...25 people

25 people have attended the 'opposition' conference in Paris, rendering it a total failure.

The number was far below even the most conservative estimates. Most of the 25 were Kurdish separatists.

The "National Forum for Democratic Dialogue" quickly spiraled into agenda driven secular politics. Not a single non-Syrian dignitary attended the conference, something they would need to give the meeting international legitimacy.

The meeting had been postponed twice before, because not enough people could be persuaded to attend.

Thursday, September 29, 2005 

UN: free local elections in Syria

The UN is reporting that the 2007 local council (municipal) elections in Syria will be free.

If this is true, it marks the first truly free elections under the Baath Party. Currently, the candidates are all chosen from the National Progressive Front (i.e. Baath Party members, and allies of the Party). But in these elections, anyone could stand.

The announcement was made by Hilal Attrash, the Minister for Local Affairs. He said that even if a northern council elected members of Kurdish parties who wanted to pursue an agenda of independence, they would not be interfered with.

Aymen Abdul Nur, the Baath party member who writes the all4Syria newsletter argues that 2007 will mark a turning point in Syrian democracy. he believes Syria has no choice but to liberalise those elections. It's needed to allow the internal 'boiling' pressure from civil society to let off some steam, and it'll satisfy some external observers, it'll also be necessary for Bashar to have a token 'liberalisation' after so many years of promises.

Abdul Nur is a Baath Party member, but is dissilussioned with much of the government - his newsletter has denounced government members by name, and his website has been taken down many times.

The true test of these promises will be in 18 months.


Syrian anti-terrorist police arrest three women

Three women have been arrested in Syria in connection with the attacks in Jibril, near Hama earlier in the month.

Five members of Jund Ash-Sham, who were responsible for the attacks in Qatar which killed one British person ealier in the year.

A battle with the group also resulted in 4 Syrian policeman dieing in the suburbs of Damascus. The police had raided a weapons store - the group claimed it was going to attack Damascus.

The Arab Organisation of Human Rights condemned this week's arrest because the women were not directly involved in the crimes. In July a group of women were arrested in Southern England in similar circumstances on the grounds that they were hiding information about the locations of their husbands - their husbands were wanted for an attempted bombing on London.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 

Lebanon's Defence Minister living in Switzerland because Lebanon is too dangerous

Lebanon's Defence Minister Michel Murr is seeking refuge in Switzerland because the security situation in Lebanon is so bad.

The astonishing revelation will raise question marks over his role - he is the man in charge of the country's security, yet even he doesn't feel safe in Lebanon.

He said that he has not been back to the country where he is a government minister since July.


Israel: the Golan Heights are ours now

Israel's Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz says the Syrian Golan Heights will remain 'forever' under Israeli control. He has urged Israelis to move into the illegally occupied Syrian land.

It is another slap in the face for a possible peace between Israel and Syria. For the past 18 months Bashar has been calling for peace talks - full normalisation if Syria gets its Golan Heights back.


Syrian Union of Journalists condemns Lebanon attack on Chidiac

Yesterday's attack on far right Lebanese journalist May Chidiac has been condemned by Syria's Journalist Union.

They've called the bombing a "a crime that targets journalists' pens and freedoms". They wished her a quick recovery.

It is a policy of the Syria News Wire not to advocate - but in the case of the protection of journalists, and journalism itself, this website stands against all attacks on journalists, whether they be in Beirut or Baghdad.

On this day, Syrian born Al-Jazeera journalist Taysir Alouni was sentenced to 7 years in jail by a Spanish court. He is accused of "collaborating with al-Qaida," based on his interview with Bin Laden in 2001.


Two new private radio stations in Syria

Two new radio stations have been licensed in Syria. Both of them are completely in private hands.

Syria Al-Ghad (The Syria of Tomorrow) and Style FM - thought to be a pop music station a la Lebanon's Radio 1 - are soon to broadcast.

Both of the new licences have come out of the Party Conference, which liberalised Syria's media laws. A private TV station was given the go ahead earlier in the year, and a media conference, run by Britain's Press Association (the UK's largest news agency) was held in Homs.

Monday, September 26, 2005 

Bomb targets Lebanese journalist

A journalist from Lebanese Forces' TV channel LBC has been targetted in a bomb attack near Beirut.

The attack happened in Jouneih when a bomb exploded under her car. May Chidiac was critically injured and taken to hospital where one of her arms and one of her legs were amputated. Her Land Rover was blown to pieces.

Students are calling for sit ins at universities across the capital tomorrow.

Since the arrest of four of the country's top security officials, Lebanon's safety has been exposed. Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt said "the country's security is exposed and anyone can fish (in the waters) and place bombs". He called for new security heads to be appointed soon.

The appointments have been held up by splits in what used to be called the 'opposition', led by Sa'ad Al-Hariri. The opposition is wrangling about who should be given which job.

Saturday, September 24, 2005 

Dispatch from Deir Ez-Zor by Ken Krayeske

Last week I posted American journalist Ken Krayeske's first 'Dispatch from Damascus'. It was his first day in Damascus. Now he's moved on to Deir Ez-Zor, on the Euphrates River. It's the largest city in the north east, with a large Kurdish population and a transient Western population of oil workers.

Here's his journey into the desert...

Dispatch from Deir Ez-Zor
By Ken Krayeske

“Anaa yamluk rafiiq huna,” I said repeatedly.

I hoped my mangled Arabic attempt at “I have friend here” would convince the plainclothes police officer at the bus station in Deir Ez-Zor – a city of about 100,000 six hours east of Damascus, deep in the heart of Syria’s eastern oil country – that I had reasons for being 120 kilometers from the Iraqi border other than those implied by the journalist visa in my passport.

The cop paid no attention, and logged my passport information into a ledger, asking me for my dad’s name – James as two syllables - my mom’s name, Betty Ann, my hotel, Ziad, and where I came from, Dimashq. Then he dialed the phone.

I could understand him saying “sahiffay amariikiy,” American journalist. In a dictatorship like Syria, as friendly and safe as it is, those words ring alarms, and I feared after reaching the Euphrates, I would be sent back to the Mediterranean. He hung up and scowled.

Eternity passed as I sat there, my heart beating fast, my stomach sinking deeper into my thighs watching the cop call and hang up several times. He grew frustrated, I fidgeted. He told me to sit.

I tried to hide my nerves. The bare office walls provided no solace, nor did the faces of the three casually dressed Syrian men sitting in the office with us.

One of them tripped over my bags trying to reach the outlet to charge his cell phone. It seemed like every time the officer picked up his land line, the other guy’s cell phone beeped. I held my laugh in.

I occupied myself catching glimpses of the equestrian show on television. I thought of a relaxing afternoon my girlfriend and I had this summer exploring horse farms in northern CT.

The officer lowered the tv volume, changed the channel to Arabic news and returned to the phone. In the window over his shoulder, I saw boys playing soccer in a dirt lot, the sun setting over a cemetery behind them. In this golden light, I wanted to be out shooting photos in this dusty little city.

It’s not like people didn’t warn me. Journalist Sy Hersh, who interviewed Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, yelled at me when I told him I was coming to Syria on a tourist visa. Based on his curmudgeonly advice, I opted for the journalist visa.

At the very least, I figured it wouldn’t get me deported, and at the worst, if I got offed, the world journalist organization that tracks the deadly statistics for journos could add me to the list, the one that shows how 2004 was the most fatal year for ink stained wretches in recent memory.

The attaché on the bus ushered me directly to the officer before I could call Mr. Maher Futehya, my contact in Deir Ez-zur. I figured I would have a minute to relax after being force fed three hours of Syrian sketch comedy on DVD.

But I had no chance to catch my bearings, to get Mr. Maher there before me. In the cop’s little office, I sweat and fidgeted. The officer told me to sit. Finally, I grabbed my cell phone and motioned to the officer that I wanted to use it. He nodded. I walked outside, called Mr. Maher, and explained the situation.

In English better than my Arabic, he said he would arrive in 15 minutes. Back in the tiny office, I pulled out my pocket Arabic dictionary.

“Rafiiq huna khamsata ‘ashar daqiiqa.” I said.

“Friend here fifteen minute.”

Finally, the frustrated cop grabbed the cell phone out of the wall and dialed a number off a piece of paper. He walked outside, paced around exactly like I did. I couldn’t hear him, but when he came back inside, he waved me through.

“Taxi,” he said. “Hotel Ziad.”

One of the guys in the office led me out, and another grabbed two of my bags and put them on a hand truck. A third younger man followed us up a short incline to the cab. I glanced at the setting sun, soaking in the view to assuage my nerves.

We tossed my luggage into the trunk, next to a stuffed tiger.

“Baksheesh,” my sherpa said. I threw him 50 pounds, or a dollar.

We exchanged chukrans, and the cab took off, winding its way through the city’s streets. Brown concrete three story buildings packed the city streets. A few minarets and domes sprouted out of the alleys.

Like everywhere else in Syria, most shops close on Friday, which is Saturday in the Arab world. Some food markets and stalls were open, children ran around on the streets, and dozens of soldiers hung around, but mostly, I stared out at steel garage doors.

When we pulled into the Hotel Ziad, I knew why Lonely Planet described it as a God-send. A half dozen well-dressed Arabs sitting in the lobby watch me relish an English conversation with the concierge.

The concierge explained that the hotel’s phone line was not working, and he apologized for the inconvenience. Apparently, the cop only wanted to confirm my reservations.

While the concierge copied my passport, I grabbed a one-liter bottle of water, which he had to open for me because my hands were too shaky for the child-proof cap. He handed me the key to room 102 and a remote control, promising to call me when my friend came.

I unlocked the room to find three-star accommodations. I flipped on the television to find a satellite movie station running through the last minutes of Moulin Rouge in English. Waves of relief washed over me. I was never so glad to see Nicole Kidman die.

The 15 minutes helped me relax before Mr. Maher arrived and we would discuss the trip to Abu Kamal.


Syrian-Iraqi border: sorry Iraq is closed - hundreds stranded

The Syrian-Iraqi co-operation to close the border is finally bearing fruits. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians are now stranded on the Syrian side, trying to return home. Iraq says they will not do anything about it.

Those stranded include children who came to Syria to have operations.

Thirteen year old Adnan said: "I have been to Amman for a surgical operation. I had my leg amputated. I have been in this place for a whole week."

They are now stranded in the heat of desert, relying on local Syrians to feed them and house them. Some are running out of money and have nowhere to go.


And now the UN demands Israel take action on Shebba

Kofi Annan, the UN's Secretary General has demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon take action on the Occupied Shebba farms.

The news comes just one day after Britain called for Israel to return the land to Lebanon.

Annan says that Shebba is "a thorn in need of extraction". He made no mention of the Occupied Golan Heights.

Ariel Sharon says he will not withdraw from the land which Israel claims is part of its territory.

Thursday, September 22, 2005 

Britain calls for international intervenion in Israeli occupied Lebanon - Britain declares Shebba as 'Lebanese'

Britain's Middle East Minister has called for international arbitration to solve the Shebba Farms dispute between Israel and Lebanon.

The small chunk of Lebanese land is the only part not evacuated in 2000 when the Israeli occupation in the rest of the country ended.

"I think this issue should be subject to international arbitration, even if at the United Nations," said Minister Kim Howells, considered to be one of the Arab World's friends in the British government.

Howells finally dismissed the notion - which even the UN has come to accept - that Shebba is Syrian and not Lebanese territory: Shebba is "Lebanese territory that the Syrians had rented ... and that when the Israelis occupied it, they thought it was Syrian territory," he said.

And that is a very important point which goes right to the heart of the raison d'etre of Hizbollah. The UN says Shebba is Syrian land. That means all of Lebanon is free from occupation - the Israelis withdrew from all of Lebanon in 2000 and so Hizbollah don't have any justification for their 'resistance'.

Syria and Lebanon insist that Shebba is Lebanese. That means part of Lebanon is still occupied and Hizbollah still has a reason to continue its armed struggle against Israel.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005 

Another diplomat shot in Syria

The Charge d'Affaires (the acting Ambassador) of the United Arab Emirates has been shot in Damascus.

It happened outside the incredible UAE embassy near the Umayyid Square. A man shot at the car carrying the diplomat, but he was unhurt, UAE officials said.

The attacker was arrested. He's thought to be a former UAE resident who was anrgy at being expelled from his country.

The attack comes just a day after news that the US Defence Attache was shot near the border earlier this month.

Monday, September 19, 2005 

US Military Attache in Syria shot

There are reports that America's Military Attache to Syria was shot, but is unhurt. The attack happened in the past fortnight.

He was patrolling the Syria-Iraq border - as he does once a month, to check for Syrian compliance with US demands - when he was shot from the Iraqi side of the border.

The US Embassies in Syria and Iraq did not comment, but the Bush Adminstration's propaganda radio station Radio Sawa reported the incident.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 

Syria's economy needs to reform

Syria's economy needs radical reform - fast. It's been accepted for a while, but now Syria's top economists have said the same.

They're calling for the public sector, and government's management of the economy to be dramatically overhauled. It's the only way to stop the economy from stagnating, they say.

They made their call at a meeting of the Economics Research Forum in Damascus. The ERF is based in Cairo.

Syria's economy has been stumbling along, growing slowly ovet the past two decades. But regional instability and American threats have drastically reduced the amount of foreign investment in Syria. There's also the delay in signing the EU Association Agreement. It was supposed to have been completed in 2003, but American pressures to include 'WMD conditions' into the agreement split the EU and pushed Syria away.

And of course, don't forget US sanctions.

But there is good news. Syria's first fully private Internet Service provider has come online. It's thought it'll make it easier for people to get internet accounts - seen as essential in Syria's development. And the country's first private radio station recently launched in Aleppo (soon to spread across the country) - and the first private TV station is in the process of being created in the Gulf.

Saturday, September 17, 2005 

Bomb in Beirut - 1 killed, 11 injured

A car bomb has exploded in Ashrafiyeh, East Beirut. At least 1 person has died, 11 people are said to be injured.

It's close to Monot Street where former Communist Party leader George Hawi was killed earlier this year.


Car bomb hits Beirut

In the past few minutes Police have said a large car bomb has exploded in a suburb of Beirut. It's thought to be to the east of the capital.

More soon...

Friday, September 16, 2005 

Bush admits Syria IS protecting the Syria-Iraq border

As-Safir newspaper, Lebanon:

"French observers close to the Syrian file said that Bush asked [Syrian] President [Bashar] Assad for additional work to stop illegal penetrations into the Iraqi territories, which is an indirect confession that Syria is cooperating, but that it has not accomplished all that it was asked to do."

Meanwhile, Abdul-Bari Atwan, outspoken Editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, says:

"[The US Ambassador in Iraq] Khalilzad got to a point where he demanded that Syria stop Saudis, Yemenis and Algerians from using the Damascus International Airport; but he did not ask the home countries of these volunteers to do anything.

“The length of the Syrian-Iraqi border is 592 kilometers, with, according to Syrian documents, 5,500 Syrian soldiers deployed at 50 border checkpoints. The Syrian authorities arrested 1,251 people trying to infiltrate the borders. What more does the US administration want?

"The Arab fighters, according to official American statistics amount to no more than 5 percent of the total resistance, whereas the absolute majority are from Iraq.

"The Iraqi-Syrian borders have two sides: one of them is Syrian and the other is Iraqi. And America has 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, and an equal number or even more of National Guard soldiers, Peshmerga, and Badr forces. So why are these forces not crowded on the borders with Syria to prevent infiltration, if the problem is exclusive to infiltrators?

"One last word to the Iraqi officials who are wildly attacking Syria and advocating [America's stance] against it, which is that the only Arab country which honored and helped them when they were Arab rejects was Syria. Most notably of those [attacking Syria] are Mr. Abdelaziz al-Hakim, the new king-maker in Iraq, its interior minister Bayan Jabbir, and finally the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who until recently was roaming the world with a Syrian diplomatic passport."


Women cycle for peace and women's rights through Syria and its neighbours

300 women are cycling for peace across the Arab World. The international cycle ride starts on Sunday in Beirut and will enter Damascus later on Sunday.

On Monday they'll set off for Quneitra in the Golan Heights. The Golan is Syrian territory, but has been illegally occupied by Israel for decades. In Quneitra they'll exchange messages of hope with Syrians living under occupation, as well as Israeli settlers on Syrian land.

Then they'll pass through Bosra, the site of one of the world's best preserved Roman ampitheatres. Next, they'll visit Jordan, then it's on to Occupied Palestine. They'll end their journey in Ramallah.

In Beirut, they'll visit the Palestinian refguee camps of Sabra and Chatilla - the scene of the 1982 massacre where Ariel Sharon was responsible for the deliberate slaughter of 200 men, women and children.

"The main goal of the Women's Bicycle Ride is to support women. Women and children suffer more from wars than others and could make peace by raising awareness in society," said Mona Ghanem, chair of the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs.

The Syrian government, Syrian mobile phone company Areeba (94), and Women for Peace - a Swedish based organisation (Sweden has a high number of Syrian immigrants) have organised the cycle.

The 300 women from 34 countries aim to raise awareness of the plight of women in the Arab world. they hope to set up exhibitions and seminars after the cycle. The women are all members of Follow the Women, a pan-Arab group which campaigns to end violence in the Arab World.

They want women to play a greater role in decision making in the region, believing that will contribute to peace.

Thursday, September 15, 2005 

Syrian Railways publishes timetables, routes on internet

Syrian railways has published details of its routes in a bid to increase traffic.

It's main Damascus-Homs-Hama-Aleppo line, as well as the branches to Lathqia and Al-Qamishli are shown. There are five daily journies between Damascus and Aleppo which takes 4 hours, costing as little as 57 Syrian Pounds (1 US Dollar). The journey by bus is three times more expensive.

Trains also run a weekly service to Tehran, Iran and Istanbul, Turkey. Incredibly, the journies cost just 75 Syrian Pounds (1 Dollar 50 cents). The trip to Tehran takes 3 days, and to Istanbul, you'll spend 6 days on the train.

Full details are here. And here for the international routes.


Syria condemns Iraqi insurgency

Syria today denounced the attack on Shiite civilians in Baghdad as a "terrorist" act, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Syria has been under pressure recently from President Bush and the US Ambassador to Iraq to 'stop the flow of fighters across the border'. Interestingly, the US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad also accused the Syrian government of actively supporting the insurgency for the first time. He said that the state media glorifies terrorists as freedom fighters.

But today's very public denounciation will go some way to dispelling that.

"The people and government of the Syrian Arab Republic are extremely pained by the news of the terrorist bombings in Baghdad today that killed a large number of innocent people in brotherly Iraq," the Foreign Ministry said.

Syrian Ambassador to London Sami Khyami went on BBC News this evening to say the same. He condemned all attacks in Iraq which target civilians.


Dispatch from Damascus, Day 1

Following the positive response to last week's post of Brian Whitaker's piece, here is another article. This time it's from Ken Krayeske, an American journalist from Progressive Magazine. He's just arrived in Damascus, and will be writing his - sometimes sceptical - experiences. Here's his first post...

Dispatch from Damascus, Day 1
Ken Krayeske
An independent and vigorous press takes risks. Mine is to go to Syria and find out what is really happening on the ground, mostly on assignment for The Progressive magazine (

Yet I will encounter much more material than I can put into that story, so every day or so for the next five or six, I will be emailing stories from Syria. I invite you to share this adventure. If you like the story, and it adds to your geopolitical reality, please post it on your website or email it to friends.

Our plane landed in Damascus and taxied around the tarmac for 20 minutes. The ants in my pants were already wild because the flight left an hour after its scheduled 11:35 p.m. departure.

At 2 a.m., not even 20 minutes waiting in a passport control line could kill the thrill of entering one-third of the Axis of Evil. Would people really want to kill me, or would they welcome me like the guidebooks said?

When the soldier waved and grunted for me to step past the red line, I hoped for the best. He read my journalist’s visa, typed my passport info into an IBM, and started quizzing me in Arabic.

I couldn’t answer, and he shouted something that materialized a German tourist named Daniel. The officer wanted a copy of the magazine I worked for. My heart skipped a beat when I couldn’t locate my copy of The Progressive, which gave me the assignment to come to Syria, which I packed especially for this occasion.

So I handed him a Harper’s. The fat, hairy-chested man in the tan uniform thumbed through the magazine like he read English, then returned it to me. He asked Daniel what I was writing and where I was going.

Daniel, 5’8’’, sandy brown hair, wire rimmed glasses, dressed in black like a good European, explained that I planned to write a nice piece about how good Syria was. Thanks, Daniel.

With a thud, the soldier stamped my passport, and I was officially welcomed into a state that supports Hezbollah, is hostile with Israel and opposed the Iraq war. For those reasons and more, George W. Bush and his neo-conservative Cabinet want Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad deposed.

If the hard liners ever get their wish, the democratic revolution will have a lot of work to do in tearing down the hundreds of pictures of Assad and his father, Hafez Al-Assad, the Alawite strongman who ruled Syria for 30 years, until his death at age 69 in 2000.

Portraits of the father and son greeted me when I first stepped into the airport, in stickers on taxicabs, and on billboards coming into the city, mingled with ads for sodas, cell phones, hotels and trade schools.

The friendly taxi driver, driving in the middle of the road in the pitch-black desert night, tried to teach me some Arabic, which I promptly forgot. At 3 a.m., downtown Damascus was deserted, except for a few men jamming some Arabic pop music from their car stereos. I felt safe.

I was so tired I accidentally left my passport with the hotel manager. It gave me a scare when I woke to the morning prayer call at 7 a.m. and started my day. After retrieving my identity documents and scarfing down a hardboiled egg, a roll and a cup of tea, I took off for the American embassy.

Damascus doesn’t open for business until 10 a.m., so my meander to the Embassy took me on streets and sidewalks lightly sprinkled with people. At first, I didn’t don my sunglasses, because I feared sticking out. I bought pants, shoes and a shirt in Turkey so I might blend in.

It seemed to work, because when I walked into a mosque and worshippers signaled me to talk to the Imam. I said I was just visiting, and an angry man asked why I was in the mosque if I wasn’t Islamic. I scurried away, hoping I didn’t start a jihad.

I wanted to register as a citizen abroad at the U.S. Embassy, after my two kilometer walk, I was thirsty, looking for some hospitality. I found American soil on Syria’s small embassy row. The Dutch and Turkish embassies lay just south of America, and the Italian embassy is just north. I didn’t find home, though.

Old Glory flies high above the heavily secured compound, which stretches a residential block. At least 12 foot high concrete walls support 10 feet of wrought iron fence, which is topped by tall, dense coils of barbed razor wire. Waist high steel pillars line the sidewalk, armed guards stand every 30 feet, and cameras hang off the walls.

One might get the impression the U.S. is worried someone in Syria doesn’t like it there. Walking into the embassy, I was subjected to the standard airport rigamarole, and when I reached the two-inch thick bullet proof glass to register with my country, I was told to do it online.

Oh well. Walking home, I bought a SIM card for my cell phone, and observed as the city slowly woke up, and more people mingled on the street. The Lonely Planet map of Syria is okay, but I wanted more, so I stopped into a bookstore.

Dar Dimashq sold me an English map, and during the transaction, I spotted a hardcover Arabic translation of Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life. Using my handy Arabic dictionary, I tried to ask the salesman if it sold well. Yes, he said.

Was it more popular than the paperback with Hitler on the cover? After a few minutes of struggling to ask and answer that doozy, he disappeared. While I waited, I noticed a paperback on the shelf featuring George Bush in a cowboy hat on the cover.

When the salesman returned with a neighboring merchant who spoke English, I asked about the Arabic script on the Bush book. It was called The Biggest Lies of George Bush – The Lies He Told Us About Iraq.

Sales of that expose and a new one about Saddam Hussein’s secret life were blooming now, the seller said. These books had eclipsed last year’s hot tome, Shame of America – From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.

The cover of that paperback featured a mosaic of torture and gore photos, like U.S. Army Pvt. Lyndy Englund and her dog leash, pyramids of Iraqi men, and orange hooded enemy combatants. Yikes. This explains the Embassy’s heavy fortifications.

I felt tears welling, ashamed for my country’s bad behavior, so I apologized to the several men who had gathered to watch the interview. The translator thanked me, and told me he and his peers didn’t hold me or other Americans responsible.

He said that they understood that we are merely people, and we don’t play the games of kings and wars. We know, he said, that you don’t want war or this to happen any more than we do.

Before I left America, I both knew and hoped that this response would greet me, and I felt relief that I encountered such hospitality and understanding on my first morning.

My afternoon was just as eventful, but more on that later...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005 

New budget airline flying into Damascus

Kuwait - a close ally of Syria - has launched a new budget airline. Jazeera Airways will have daily flights into Damascus from Kuwait.

Flights are being offered for as little as $34, and bookings are already being taken. But the company's website still isn't running yet.

Jazeera Airlines will also fly daily to Beirut, Dubai and Manama. It will fly weekly into Amman.


Bush tells Syria not to interfere in Iraq - Rice interferes in UN Hariri Investigation

"Syrian security officials got entangled in the murder of Prime Minister Hariri." Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gives her own judgement of what the Mehlis Investigation must say.

That's in direct contradiction to the UN investigator Detlev Mehlis's statement that "there are no Syrian suspects." He hasn't even started to interview in Syria.

But since when did the US care about UN procedures.

Rice accused Syria of trying to economically 'strangle' Lebanon (she didn't mention how - but that doesn't really matter) - but made no mention of her attempts to economically 'strangle' Syria with yet more sanctions.

Monday, September 12, 2005 

Detlev Mehlis arrives in Damascus - Ghazleh in suicide attempt?

Detlev Mehils has arrived in Damascus - his convoy protected by an umbrella of Syrian Army helicopters.

There are also claims that Rustom Ghazaleh - who has been put under house arrest by President Bashar Al-Assad - has attempted to kill himself. Syria has denied the reports.

The reports do not come from a reputable source - the Kuwaiti gossip rag As-Siyassiyeh. As-Siyassiyeh carries virulant anti-Syrian stories almost daily, almost none of which turn out to be true.

Ghazleh was the feared head of Syrian Military Intelligence in Lebanon, during Syria's presence. He was one of the 'old guard' - a powerful opponent of Bashar's liberalisation.

He is said to have been sidelined since the Party Conference in May, where Bashar moved anti-reform figures out, and replaced them with people closer to his line.

Mehlis's meetings are being kept under wraps, but he will definately meet Ghazaleh, Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, and the two heads of Beirut security Mohammed Khallouf and Jameh Jameh. He may meet Bashar to discuss meeting other officials. But Mehlis has been careful to point out that there are no Syrian suspects, only witnesses.

Mehils brings with him 24 investigators and translators.

Sunday, September 11, 2005 

What is Bashar doing?

Bashar Al-Assad has held a summit of 10 Palestinian resistance groups based in Damascus. He declared his support for Hamas's political leader Khaled Mishael (below).

It's a massive change in Syrian policy. For the past couple of years, Syria has insisted that the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad along with other rejectionist groups in Damascus had been shut down. Indeed, Mishael himself was not welcome in Syria and fled to Qatar. But now he's at the top table.

It's a move that's bound to infuriate the US. But confusingly it flies in the face of Bashar's 'reformist-appeasement' line.

Bashar was even planning to attend the UN summit in the hope of holding private talks with US officials. He has repeatedly offered to restart peace talks - unconditionally - with Israel. And he pulled out of Lebanon quicker than anyone in the region imagined.

America in recent months has been trying to isolate Bashar. He's the Arab World's latest boogeyman. But the flipside is that if the Bush administration continues to reject Syrian attempts at reconcilliation, Syria might just turn its back and make no attempt to please the States.

Today's meeting makes it clear that peace talks with Israel are off, and support for the resistance is on.

Is this the price of the American brick wall?

Saturday, September 10, 2005 

Iraqi government finally closes Syria-Iraq border

After months of complaints that rebels are being allowed to enter Iraq from Syria, Iraq has finally taken the decision to close their side of the border.

Until now, all of the blame has been heaped on Syria - US forces have accused Iraq's neighbour for not securing their side of the border without providing any troops for the troubled side. There are almost no American or Iraqi troops patrolling their side of the divide.

The decision comes as Iraqi forces raid Tel Afar, a town near the border. They claim to have killed 141 people. The border is set to close later this month.

UPDATE: The border was closed last night.

Friday, September 09, 2005 

Syrian police kill militants near Iraq border

Another battle has taken place. This time in Hasaka, in North Eastern Syria near the border with Iraq.

The miltants were hiding out in the Khashman district of Hasaka. Khashman is a poor, run-down suburb on the outskirts of the city.

'Another Attack!'

There have been a rash of supposed Syrian victories over militants since the start of the year. This from a country with a security apparatus so firm that it would always deny dissent or the existence of rebels in its territory.

So there have been suspicions that these attacks have been timed to coincide with the new American pressure on Syria.

Were the Syrian authorities were inventing battles to show the US that they were on the same side in the 'War on Terror'. It also gives belligerents in the Bush Administration a taste of what's to come if they overthrow Bashar's government: the dreaded boogeyman of the Al-Qaida-affiliated Muslim Brotherhood, which Syria has kept down for 20 years. But most importantly it shows that Syria is dealing with militants in its territory before they can cross the border into Iraq.

So it is no surprise that the announcements of the Syrian attacks on militants have come straight from the government - the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency.

But today's attack marks a change. The announcement came from Human Rights Groups in Hasaka. And the government hasn't yet confirmed it. Human Rights Groups have been scathing of the government in recent years - for imprisioning activists and closing down independent publications.

Pan-Arab Islamist group

Today's attack is said to be on 'Jund Ash-Sham', one militant was killed and three have been arrested. A member of the security forces was also injured. The Jund Ash-Sham group has been plaguing Syria in recent months. They were planning to attack Damascus, and have been blamed for other terrorist outrages across the Arab world.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005 

Bashar Al-Assad cancels UN visit

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad wont be attending the biggest gathering of world leaders at the UN next week.

Speculation about Bashar's involvement in the Hariri killing has grown since UN investigator Detlev Mehlis announced he'll be visiting Damascus on Saturday.

'Doing an Arafat'

But the real reason for staying at home might be the frosty reception he'll receive in New York. Condoleeza Rice said she'll hold meetings about Syria on the sidelines of the UN gathering - all Arab leaders, plus EU heads of state would be involved. But Bashar would be shut out.

Opposition groups also planned to protest the visit, and he was likely to be vilified in the US media.

His decision not to attend was leaked in gossip rags Elaph, and As-Siyasiyah.

Syria has never sent anyone to similar gatherings, and it might have been a unique opportunity to bring Syria close to US officials for the first time since the Hariri killing. There are precedents - Bashar met and warmly greeted the Israeli President at the Pope's funeral. And former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad held behind-the-scenes negotiations on a peace deal during the Israeli-Arab Madrid Summit.

But not this time.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005 

Brian Whitaker: Long shadow of the Beirut massacre

It's not often that I publish other people's articles. In fact I never do. Should I? Let me know, leave a comment.

But this deserves force feeding. It's an excellent piece from The Guardian's Middle East Editor - an expert on Lebanon and Syria.

Great summary of why all eyes are on Detlev Mehlis, and how the Valentine's Day massacre has changed Lebanon and Syria forever and how its effects are still being felt. Gently delivered but insightful comment and analysis too, as you'd expect from Whitaker.

Articles on Syria - especially critical ones - used to be cut out or blacked out of international papers in Damascus. As if a mouse had got to them first. That all ended when Bashar came to power and stuff like this was accessible on the net. In a couple of days time, the following words will be on the streets of Damascus - literally.

Some extracts:
"The UN's investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri threatens to bring down not only his successor but also Bashar al-Assad of Syria."

"If there is a silver bullet in Mr Mehlis' briefcase when he delivers his final report to the UN, the Americans will surely not hesitate to use it."

Here it is:

Long shadow of the Beirut massacre

The UN's investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri threatens to bring down not only his successor but also Bashar al-Assad of Syria, writes Brian Whitaker.

The Guardian
Tuesday September 6, 2005

The arrest last week of four Lebanese generals on charges of murder, attempted murder and terrorism is an unprecedented event in the Middle East: high-ranking officers have been arrested before - often on trumped-up charges after a quarrel with their political masters - but this time the arrests are the result of painstaking detective work by international investigators.

Even more significantly, it is entirely possible the arrests will lead to the downfall of not one Arab president but two: Emile Lahoud of Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The murder and terrorism charges arise from the Valentine's Day massacre almost eight months ago, when Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, was blown up in his car along with at least 20 other people as he drove along the Beirut seafront.

Instead of investigating thoroughly, the Lebanese security forces, who at the time were effectively under the control of Syria, blatantly destroyed evidence. In response to that, the UN security council sent its own team of investigators, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, and last week's arrests were made by the Lebanese police at his instigation.

We do not yet know what evidence Mr Mehlis has compiled, nor what the generals have to say in their defence, but if they are eventually convicted, the political implications will be stunning.

The four men now in jail awaiting trial are Major General Jamil al-Sayyid, the former head of general security, Major General Ali Hajj, the former chief of police, Brigadier General Raymond Azar, the former head of military intelligence, and Mustafa Hamdan, head of the presidential guard.

To anyone familiar with the way things worked in Lebanon before the Syrian troops withdrew last April, it is obvious that these four security chiefs did not casually get together and decide among themselves that it would be a good idea to assassinate Rafik Hariri; if they were involved, they were acting under orders.

Technically, they were all under the command of the Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, but Lahoud was not really in charge. The generals were agents of Syrian policy in Lebanon, and on all important matters took their instructions from Damascus, not the presidential palace in Beirut.

Nevertheless, Mustafa Hamdan was Lahoud's right-hand man. Lahoud has publicly defended him, and in most democratic systems that would be enough to trigger the president's resignation.

The situation in Lebanon, however, is more complicated, partly because Lahoud seems determined to cling on but also because Lahoud is a Christian and there are fears that his departure would upset the delicate political balance of power between the country's religious factions.

Even so, it is difficult to see how Lahoud can survive until his term ends in 2007, especially if the newly elected government carries out its threat to have no further dealings with the president.

So far, the Syrian aspects of the murder investigation have not really come into play, but that will change on Saturday when Mr Mehlis - after a good deal of procrastination from Damascus - will travel to Syria to question five officials there.

The officials, who are described as witnesses, include Ghazi Kanaan, the interior minister, Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and his two chief assistants, Mohammed Khallouf and Jameh Jameh.

The fifth Syrian "witness" has not been named, giving rise to speculation that the person in question is the president, Bashar al-Assad, himself. This is a logical assumption to make because of a conversation - or an altercation - that took place last year between Assad and Hariri last year.

During the 10-minute meeting, Assad allegedly threatened physical harm against Hariri and the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, saying he "would rather break Lebanon over the heads of Hariri and Jumblatt than see his word in Lebanon broken". In the light of what happened to Hariri a few months later, it is not unreasonable for the UN to want to hear Assad's side of the story.

Looking a little beyond the interrogations on Saturday, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where Mr Mehlis asks the Syrian authorities to arrest one or more of their security chiefs and hand them over for trial alongside the Lebanese generals. He might even attempt to summon Assad as a witness in the case. Syria would then have to decide whether to comply - and failure to do so would be a breach of security council resolution 1595, which set up the Hariri investigation.

This would dramatically shift the investigation from straightforward detective work into the realms of international politics, creating a situation reminiscent of the standoff with Libya over the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, which rumbled on for more than a decade.

It is possible, of course, that at this point diplomacy would take over from detection and some sort of compromise might be worked out in order to avoid a confrontation - though in the present climate of American politics, that is extremely unlikely.

Elements in the US have been trying to "get" Syria for years - over its support for Palestinian factions and Hizbullah, over its now-abandoned military presence in Lebanon and more recently over cross-border activity in Iraq.

One way or another, Syria has managed to fend off all these attacks with its regime relatively unscathed, but the Hariri case has presented a fresh opportunity. If there is a silver bullet in Mr Mehlis' briefcase when he delivers his final report to the UN, the Americans will surely not hesitate to use it.

Monday, September 05, 2005 

Blogging in Syria

Syria has one of the lowest number of blogs in the Arab world. Even Iran has overtaken its Arab neighbour. But that's not stopping their rapid growth.

The internet is much freer in Syria than print media. That's probably because of the President's background. He was president of the Syrian Computer Society, and pushed for wider use of the internet in Syria. He even promised every school child their own computer.

There are now 610,000 people with net access in Syria. That's 3.5% of the population - half of most other Arab countries.

Since the explosion of media attention on Syria in 2005, the number of Syrian blogs has leaped to about 50. Last year there were probably only two - Josh Landis's Syria Comment, and Ayman Haykal's Damascene Blog.

Sunday, September 04, 2005 

UN investigator: no Syrian suspects

Detlev Mehlis, the UN's chief investigator into the murder of Rafiq Al-Hariri says there are no Syrian suspects. It comes after he harshly criticised Syria for failing to turn over documents vital to the invesigation. He also said Syria didn't respond to requests for interviews.

But now Syria has officially invited Mehlis to Damascus - he is said to be keen to make the trip.

Meanwhile, the four Lebanese suspects in Beirut have been officially arrested. They will be sent to court soon, where the charges against them will be laid out. The four men were the most powerful people in Lebanon for the past 15 years.

Saturday, September 03, 2005 

Raid on Hama militants - 5 dead

The latest photo from the scene of yesterday's raid on a militant hideout. The five Jund Ash-Sham members - linked to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaida's leader in Iraq - were planning to attack Damascus.


Update: Hama attack

Update on the five militants killed in Hama...

The attack took place in the village of Jibreen, outside the city of Hama. All five militants were killed, and two soldiers were wounded. Weapons, bombs and explosives were seized in the raid.


Bosra music festival begins

Every two years Bosra's ampitheatre stops being another box to tick on the tourist map, and returns to its former glory. For a few short days, the sounds of traditional Syrian singers will reverberate around one of the most beautiful outdoor theatres in the Roman Empire.

The international festival brings together 14 other Arab and international states, and is the 18th time the gathering has been held.

The black stone theatre is designed in a semi-circle to trap and reflect the sound, channeling it to every single listener - even at the lofty heights of the very top of the ampitheatre. And that's a long way up - the place can hold 15,000 people.

Bosra is the most well preserved Roman ampitheatre in the world - its still virtually intact, even the underground passageways and paths into the arena are still functioning.

17 traditional Syrian singers and dancers will perform at the bi-annual Bosra festival - make the most of it while it lasts. Bosra is about one hour south of Damascus.


The new battle of Hama: 5 militants killed

Syrian troops have killed 5 militants in Hama. They were members of Jund Ash-Sham, which has attacked Syria in recent months, and which has been the target of an urgent Syrian hunt.

Syrian forces are said to have raided a hideout in the Hama muhafazaat (region) - it's not clear how close they were to the city of Hama.

Last week the group killed 4 Syrian police officers. Jund Ash-Sham claimed responsibility for an attack in Qatar which killed a number of people including one Briton. They were also planning to attack Damascus.

In 1982 Hama was raided by Syrian troops after an attempted coup by militants from the Muslim Brotherhod - an estimated 20,000 people died.

Thursday, September 01, 2005 

UN investigator ready to visit Syria

Detlev Mehlis, the UN investigator in charge of the probe into the murder of Rafiq Al-Hariri says he's turned a corner. A few days ago he criticised Syria for their lack of co-operation. Bashar Al-Assad immediately replied by offering full support to the inquiry.

Mehlis said today that, "there were some problems but I'm optimistic that these problems can be solved." He says he's willing to take up the invitation to Syria.

It also appears that the five suspects arrested by Lebanese authorities had been central to the Mehils investigation. They were "extensively interviewed" by the UN, but he insisted that they were innocent until proven guilty.

So was that the reason for the arrests this week? Guilt by association?

The Lebanese investigators were fiercly condemned by the UN for their Hariri investigation. It was labelled incompetent at best, and criminal at worst.

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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