Saturday, March 31, 2007 

US House of Representatives leader visiting Damascus

US House of Representatives leader Nancy Pelosi is about to visit Damascus to meet President Bashar Al-Assad.

She is the first female leader of the House, and is Bush's main opponent. As a Democrat, she is the face of the mid-term elections last November which saw Bush's Republicans defeated in both American Houses of Parliament.

Bush tried to talk her out of the visit, but she is going anyway - albeit after a 'briefing' from the White House.

She is going with Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to congress - as well as Tom Lantos, chairman of the House foreign affairs committee.

It is the latest move to end Bush's isolation of Syria - the EU Foreign Policy chief, and a US minister in Bush's government visited earlier this month. Pelosi's trip, though, is undoubtedly the most high profile.

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Friday, March 30, 2007 

Damascus in Danger

Old Damascus has been ignored for too long. Things are starting to change now, but one plan - in the name of modernisation - could do more to harm, than conserve the city's incredible history.

The area in question is between Bab As-Salam and Bab Touma just outside the walls on the north eastern side of the Old City. It is the focus of a massive petition.

The treasured old city of Damascus is facing a battle for survival, says Lucy Fielder.

Huddled against the Barada River that flows through Syria’s capital city, lies an ancient warren of streets. Alleys twist off right and left; like traps for the uninitiated outsider they may lead only to a locked front door or yield a glimpse of an orange tree in a courtyard. Jasmine flowers tumble down the walls and the timber and plaster houses are so bowed with the weight of centuries they almost touch overhead. Take another turn and you emerge, blinking, onto a bustling main thoroughfare. Tiny Mamluk-era shops with stone arches spill their wares onto the pavement.

The above could describe any part of the old city of Damascus, perhaps the most intact ancient Arab city in existence. Yet the bulldozer threatens its houses, watermills and workshops with demolition. In their place developers want to build an eight-lane motorway flanked by high-rise blocks.

Experts fear old Damascus’s treasured listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is also in jeopardy if the plan to broaden the Al-Malik Faisal Road goes ahead. “I think you could say the city is in more danger than it has ever been since it was sacked by Timur in 1401,” said a leading conservation and heritage expert, who like several other specialists only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of this issue.

2007 presents opportunity and risk. Conservationists are grooming the city to take the Arab Cultural Capital crown next year. Areas will receive facelifts; tourist facilities will be enhanced. But the 30-year-old road plan may come to pass as soon as this month unless lobbyists apply the brakes somehow.

Shopkeeper Ibrahim Hamzeh says all his neighbours have received notices to evict their homes, which lie just outside Bab Al-Salam - one of the seven gateways to the old city. “We’re just waiting for our turn,” he said in his shop that sells carpets and trinkets near the Umayyad Mosque. “This will destroy a community. All our friends and family live around here but if we are relocated it will be to an area 25 kilometres outside the city.”

Thousands of residents of the endangered Al-Uqaiba and Al-Amara historic suburbs, outside the walls between Bab Al-Salam and Bab Touma, say they also expect to be re-housed in the Adra industrial park and satellite town.

Proponents of the plan insist that the 40-metre-wide space to be cleared contains houses no more than 70-years-old. But Hamzeh disagrees. “It’s an old area, my house is at least two hundred years old and there’s a vegetable market that has been there for hundreds of years.” According to available information most of the buildings in the areas on either side of the city wall are roughly the same age - dating from within the past 250 years since a 1759 earthquake. The development plans will mean centuries-old communities will vanish with the clay and timber.

“Damascus’s uniqueness and value is as an intact old Arab city. That’s not confined to within the walls,” said the conservation expert. Walking through the doomed area, a restoration specialist pointed out an Ottoman watermill in Al-Amara made of timber and plaster. “Imagine what an amazing restaurant this would make,” he said. “Imagine a glass floor with the river and the workings underneath. All Damascus once ate bread from this mill.”

Damascus grew beyond its wall in the 12th century and by the 18th and 19th centuries two thirds of its historic houses lay extra-muros outside, according to a 2001 International Council on Monuments and Sites report. As a result “the status of World Cultural Heritage site has been given to the entire town,” wrote the report’s author, Stefan Weber. “But the Syrian administration has unfortunately considered only the quarters intra muros as worthy of safeguarding and has enacted laws and set up a council for protection of only these quarters.”

ICOMOS, which evaluates the state of heritage sites, is to report to the World Heritage Committee in June. Veronique Dauge, head of UNESCO for the Arab world, gave the following statement by telephone from Paris: “We’ve visited Damascus and we are in close contact with the authorities in order to present the plans to the World Heritage Committee in June.” But one expert described de-listing as “very, very likely. It’s the right thing to do.”

Most people believe the Syrian Government is not aware of the degree of risk. “Only the President can stop this now,” said one expert. “I think the governorate is acting with good intentions but there’s a lack of awareness,” said another. “They can’t want Damascus to be taken off the list because the World Heritage listing is such a huge economic asset, but I don’t think anyone is taking the threat seriously enough.”

UNESCO warned Damascus governorate of the danger in the last few months, according to Mouaffak Doughman - director of the old city until late last year and now a lecturer at Damascus University’s architecture faculty. He said he believed the plan was on ice for a few months - though the eviction notices suggest the contrary.

“I think the governorate has started to think in a new way. They asked me to explain the dangers to them and I said there were many: cutting the outside and inside of the old city off from each other, covering the Barada river over and the environment concerns - the extra traffic will be very bad for the old city,” he said. Although some officials insist green land would be landscaped on either side of the new road, Doughman said tower blocks were planned instead.

Where Al-Thawra road slices through Bahsa and Saruja, already run-down concrete high-rise buildings blister up between old houses and markets. Souk Al-Sarouja resembles a limb of the old city that is withering without a blood supply; three-lane highways enclose its puzzle of cobbled streets and clay and timber houses, mosques and hammams. But perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the urban development ethos of the past few decades is in Al-Marja Square, where the 1347 Yalbougha Mosque was knocked down in the 1970s to make way for the vast concrete hulk that squats there now, half-built and subsiding.

Sarouja is also at risk. Large areas have been sold off for demolition to build tower blocks. Re-privatising the land may not be simple, say experts, but compared to losing an irreplaceable medieval suburb, it may be the best option. Sarouja was known as “Little Istanbul” in Ottoman times, when Syria was ruled from the Turkish capital, because of its wealthy inhabitants and elegance. “Some of Sarouja is older than what is in the old city,” says Rajab. “Some is Mamluk, some Ayyubid. That means 800 years old!”

Officials say the expansion of the Al-Malik Faisal road will ease the traffic in the old city and expose its walls. But according to Doughman, the widening of Al-Malik Faisal road will sever the traditional roads between the ancient suburbs and close the stranglehold of highway and concrete around the old city. And with each act of demolition, the protected area within the old city becomes more like a museum.

Michel Ecochard, a French urban planner commissioned to draw up a traffic scheme for the capital, originally conceived the road in 1968. Ecochard envisaged clearing a space around Damascus’s monuments to show them off and creating large boulevards. Courtyard houses were subsequently lost to modern buildings and street-widening schemes, but public outcry blocked the highways that were to cut through the old city. In 1972, a law came in banning any demolition intra-muros. But the historic suburbs of Al-Amara, Al-Bahsa, Qanawat, Sarouja, Al-Uqaiba and Midan were left vulnerable to development.

Luna Rajab, architect and member of the Friends of Damascus residents’ body, said Ecochard did not take Arab architectural influences into account. “In France buildings have exterior elevation. There’s something to see. With Arab architecture the beauty is on the inside. The city wall wasn’t built to be seen, so it was always covered with houses.”

Between Bab Touma and Bab Sharki the old walls are exposed but largely unremarkable. “They’ve done nothing here. There is no lighting or plaques to tell you of the historic events that happened here,” said one architectural expert. “Is it really so important to have the whole wall showing?”

A jumble of old houses cling to the Barada River outside Bab El-Faradis, which means ‘Paradise Gate’. A litter-strewn wasteland behind them forms an island between two branches of the Barada. “It really was a paradise here - a garden. People used to come for picnics,” the expert said. He produced an old photograph, which shows the houses in a better state of repair and surrounded by luxuriant plants dipping their tendrils into the river. “When this area is destroyed we’ll lose an historic opportunity to restore it, boost tourism and provide different investment opportunities - hotels, restaurants, cultural centres. Nobody’s interested in new buildings.”

He estimated that around 300 craftsmen would be sent away when the area falls and at least 300 attractive old courtyard houses will be lost. “I say to the them (the developers), don’t come to the old city if you find it ugly. Build your dream elsewhere. We’re happy with our ugly old houses,” he added.

A metro, a ring-road, moving public buildings outside the centre and providing a car park and banning parking along the existing Al-Malik Faisal road to free up an extra couple of lanes are among the solutions conservationists say should be investigated before the demolition ball starts swinging.

The expanded Al-Malik Faisal road would narrow into two-lanes on either side of the centre “so it will be a bottleneck,” said one critic of the plan. “At least this should be studied. If they can prove this will ease the traffic, fine. But experience elsewhere shows that more roads equals more cars,” he added. Rajab argues that an urban masterplan for all of Damascus is crucial. “The old city is not an oasis in the desert,” she said.

Since the first courtyard houses were converted to restaurants in the 1990s, the old quarters - which the middle classes abandoned in favour of mod cons and wide streets - are enjoying a renaissance. Young people stroll through the streets of a weekend evening; jazz bands entertain crowds in Mar Mar - a popular bar in Bab Touma; the wealthy dine on mezze in Elissar Restaurant; and on a Friday morning, students, tourists and Damascenes have breakfast beneath the orange trees in Beit Jabri’s courtyard.

But some say development needs to be more organised. “Damascus is the oldest inhabited city in the world and we need to keep it like that, not turn it into a museum,” Rajab says. “Old buildings must be given new functions at times, but the restaurants and hotels should be confined to certain areas to preserve the residential nature of the city.”

Many who renovate their houses do so with little expertise and even less taste. Columns, painted “Mamluk” stripes and fantastical, pseudo-oriental details abound. Owners need financial help to buy traditional materials cheaply says Beshr Al-Barry, an architect at the directorate of the old city. The directorate in Maktab Anbar Palace does its best to regulate the work, but there are too many houses and too few staff. About 5,000 traditional courtyard houses lie within the walls, he says, and a 1997 survey found 90 percent needed urgent repair.

After the French audit of the Old City in 1936 until 1996 families were banned from doing any internal restructuring work to their homes, even building a new bathroom. “So people would go around the rules, and build at night,” Al-Barry said. The 1970s stand out as a disastrous decade. Faced with disintegrating old houses that were hard to renovate and low in value, owners sold their painted wood panelling, tiles and fountains to antiquity sharks.

“For the past three or four years it has been getting better because there are new graduates in restoration and the level of technical training has improved,” Al-Barry added. A new generation of craftsmen must learn the old techniques and a pilot scheme to give cheap, long-term loans to owners to restore their houses has worked well in Aleppo, experts say. Al-Barry said such a plan was in the pipeline for Damascus.

But even old houses within the old city walls are not as safe as they should be. Near Bab Al-Salam, inside the walls, a vast modern mosque takes the space of perhaps 20 houses and a bulky concrete extension is being added. “If we’re not careful, in another 20 years there’ll be hardly any old houses left,” the architectural expert said.

In spite of this, welcome plans to tart up the old city are underway, starting with Souk Medhat Pasha. An EU-Syrian project aims to put the jungle of electric cables that swing overhead underfoot and remove the clutter of plastic signs and air-conditioning units from the Ottoman arched shop fronts.

Most importantly the Roman sewage system that overflows and damages walls and foundations is to be upgraded, starting with Straight Street. “We need to preserve this as a living city, and the best way is by improving the quality of life and services for residents and reducing the problems they face everyday,” Al-Barry said.

EU-Syrian projects to boost sustainable tourism in the old city include picture maps with routes through the city and plaques on the khans, madrassas and bimaristans. An “old houses” route will give tourists a peep behind the doors of a number of Damascene buildings and religious, bazaar and handicraft tours are being drawn up. A sound and light show on Salah Ad-Din Square by the Umayyad Mosque will also teach tourists about Damascus’s old city. “I’m aware of a change in thinking towards the old city of Damascus, it’s now seen as a potential area of investment,” said the project’s director, Ersan Ali.

But renovation within the walls is unlikely to save Damascus if homes and shops are destroyed outside them. If the old city of Damascus is listed as a heritage site “in danger” in June, the loss of its World Heritage designation altogether could follow as soon as six months later, experts say. It would be a sad irony if the city were to fall from grace just months after it was crowned Arab Cultural Capital for 2008.

Issue: Mars 2007

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Thursday, March 29, 2007 

Covering Egypt

Things are getting worse, much worse, in Egypt.

Bloggers arrested, prisoners tortured, forty-thousand political prisoners in jail, Mubarak's police-state constitutional changes. Now, it is even difficult to cover the most innocent of stories as a journalist.

"Dissenting voices are not easily tolerated within one of America's strongest allies in the Arab world."

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An Nahar headline: "Assad Embraced by Saudi Monarch, Lahoud Welcomed by Deputy Provincial Emir"

Lebanese Forces hate-paper An Nahar has run another misleading headline.

"Assad Embraced by Saudi Monarch, Lahoud Welcomed by Deputy Provincial Emir" - true, but in that same article it also mentions that: "Lahoud, an ally of Assad, was welcomed by Prince Sattam Bin Abdul Aziz, deputy head of the Riyadh province, the same official who welcomed Prime Minister Fouad Saniora, Lahoud's main rival."

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Friday, March 23, 2007 

French television interview with Syria's president

Interview on France 2 with bashar Al-Assad:

"Isolating Syria can't have good results. Whoever wants to isolate Syria, is isolating hi,self from the problems of the region."

How long has it been that you haven't spoken to French President Chirac?

"Since 2004, I think. It corresponds to the rupture of relations between Syria and France. It is not a food thing for the relation between the two countries, and it is evident that France has suffered the most from it because France was in charge of the European politics in the region and now we don't hear anything anymore about French politics in the Middle East.

On the murder of Rafiq Al-Hariri:

"Nobody can accuse Syria without proofs, that be President Chirac or whoever.

The person who wants to accuse Syria must give proofs. We cannot build a relation between counties based on personal emotions. Relations should be based on reality and common interests. This accusation is totally inadmissable."

What would you tell President Chirac if you would meet him before the end of his Presidency?

"I would ask him where is the problem? I already said that whoever is involved in this case (Hariri), is considered to be a traitor under the Syrian law. They will be judged by a Syrian tribunal and condemned as severly as if it were in any other tribunal.

On Iraq:

"It is not of our interest to have chaos in a neighbour country, neither to keep it as sooner or later, in one way or another, we will have to pay for it."


UN Hariri investigators look inside Turkey to find their suspect

UN investigators looking into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri are focussing on a suspect in Turkey.

The man's name is Louai Sakka, a Syrian who worked closely with Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. It was Zarqawi followers who have been behind bombings in Syria in recent years, and they are also blamed by Lebanese and Syrian officials for smuggling weapons from Lebanon into Syria.

Sakka has been given life in prison in Turkey for masterminding attacks in Istanbul which killed 63 people in 2003.

In 2005, Sakka's lawyer said that unidentified men tried to force Sakka to testify against Syria in relation to the Hariri killing. He was threatened with death if he didn't comply.

We have seen similar death threats from Hariri thugs before. In 2006, they allegedly threatened to kill a key witness in the UN investigation unless he testified against Syria. That witness was later discredited.

UN chief investigator Serge Brammertz has praised Syria's full-cooperation, but hit out at a number of other countries for obstructing him.

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US admits it blocked a Lebanon ceasefire

John Bolton, America's former ambassador to the UN has admitted he did obstruct a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon and that he was "damned proud" of it.

During the war, he, and other Bush regime officials said they were waiting for the right time, because an immediate ceasefire wouldn't be "lasting".

Now the truth has come out - they wanted Israel to damage Lebanon as much as possible, before calling for an end to the war. They didn't care about Lebanon one bit, despite Fouad Siniora's tears.

Bolton says he only agreed to the ceasefire once it became clear that Israel wasn't achieving its military aims - and probably, once Israel gave its backing.

It comes just weeks after Israel revealed it had been preparing for a war against Lebanon for months, even though it claimed its atttacks were "in response" to the kidnapping of two soldiers.

Yesterday evening, John Bolton displayed more of his famous arrogant belligerance.

He sat on a live TV link from Washington to London and condemned the audience of a British television programme discussion on the Iraq war. He said it was "depressing" that people could sit with a "straight face" and question the success of the war in Iraq. In Bolton's world, no one would raise an eyebrow.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007 

Syria's co-operation

...with the US:
American Colonel William Crowe, in charge of the Iraq-Syria border Syria and Iraq says: "there is no large influx of foreign fighters that come across the border."

...with the Hariri inquiry:
“The last three missions in particular were arranged and facilitated in a professional and timely manner by the Syrian authorities.” Syria “has continued to provide the commission with assistance in response to its requests within the appropriate timescales, and the commission is grateful for the logistical and security arrangements provided by Syrian authorities.” (Serge Brammertz).

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Weapons for Lebanon found in Syria

Syrian authorities have caught a van carrying weapons heading towards the Lebanese border.

It was a vehicle with Iraqi number plates. It has been revealed in a UN report on the Syria-Lebanon border, which the UN says the two countries are now co-operating on.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007 

UN refugee agency says the world is in "abject denial" about Iraqi refugee problem in Syria

The UN says the world is in denial about the Iraq refugee crisis in Syria and Jordan. Both countries have asked for more help.

Syria hosts about 1.2 million, and Jordan has 800,000.

The UN praised Syria for its work, and the US even sent a top level government minister to discuss the problem.

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Fighting between Fateh Al-Islam and Fateh Al-Intifadah gives MORE embarrasment for Lebanese Interior Minister


The two groups the Lebanese Interior Minister said were working together, and were Syrian backed, have fought AGAINST each other.

Lebanon's Interior Minister blamed Fateh Al-Islam for last month's bus bombings, and said the group was Syrian backed. As the group, Lebanese experts, Syrian experts, the Syrian government, and even the New York Times have said: Fateh Al-Islam is quite an anti-Syrian group.

It split from pro-Syrian Fateh Al-Intifadah last year.

And NOW, the two groups have been involved in a gun battle in Lebanese refugee camp Nahr Al-Barid. Yes, Hassan Sabaa, they are the same group aren't they.



Monday, March 19, 2007 

Syrian TV moves towards independence

So first the banking sector was opened up, then we heard about radical economic reforms, now could the government do the unthinkable - make Syrian TV independent?

Private TV stations were allowed shortly after Bashar came to power, and the first major venture - Sham TV launched last year. But it was shut down in October. Many said, it was because the government was planning something.

And now, we see why. The government wants to create its own Al Jazeera - it worked for Saudi Arabia, which created Al Arabiyah, seen by many as relatively independent.

It makes sense. Syrians can watch satellite TV like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyah - it is cheap and easy to put up a satellite dish. And with every new Al Jazeera viewer, Syrian TV loses a viewer.

Majed Halima, head of Syrian TV: "Now we are proposing an act that would empower the cooperation with more financial and administrative independence so that it could compete with other Arab and international media outlets."

Interestingly, one reason they are changing could be because of pressure from inside. Halima says he is worried about the loss of talented Syrian broadcasters, who go to Al Jazeera because they want more freedom. Indeed, many of Al Jazeera's presenters and reporters are Syrian.

Damascus has one of the most vibrant independent TV production industries in the Arab world. Around one hundred companies - completely independent of government - operate in Damascus, producing some of the best programmes in the Arab world, which are sold to broadcasters across the Arab world.


Sunday, March 18, 2007 

72 year-old-man dies of abuse in jail

The Syrian Human Rights Committee says it has received reports that a 72-year-old man has died in prison after being abused - although it says it can't confirm the reports.

Muhammad Ali Dirbak, from Banyas, on the Mediterranean coast, was detained on 28 January after allegedly criticising Shias.

His son was also accused of membership of the Muslim Brotherhood which normally earns the death sentence, although this was reduced to six years.



Four people killed near Aleppo in building collapse [UPDATED]

Four people have died after a building collapsed near Aleppo.

Witnesses say the bodies of a five-year-old child, two women and a man were removed from the rubble in the poor area of Bustan Al-Basha in the province of Aleppo.

Cracks appeared an hour before, and most of the residents rushed outside - it could've been far worse.

The five-storey apartment block was completely destroyed and a neighbouring building was damaged. A firefighter has also been injured, and one person is missing.

It's thought to have happened because of poor construction, and a sewage leak in the basement. The building was put up quickly, during the construction rush in the early 1970s. An investigation is underway.

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France "urged" Israel to invade Syria

Israeli Army Radio is reporting that France urged Israel to invade Syria and topple Bashar As-Assad's government at the start of the war on Lebanon last summer.

They say it was because of Syria's backing for Hizbollah (which threatened the stability of Fouad Siniora's French-backed Lebanese government) and because France blamed Syria for killing Rafiq Al-Hariri, a close friend of French president Jacques Chirac.

This came at the start of the war, in a secret conversation between Chirac and Olmert.

I find this highly dubious, though. It is a well timed move to embarrass France, just days after France gave its blessing to a high-level EU mission to Damascus. Israel was fuming when EU Foreign Minister Javier Solana said he backed Syria's attempts to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Don't forget, it was France which appeared most angered by the war - at least in public. And it was French soldiers (working for the UN) in Lebanon which threatened to shoot Israeli jets if they flew over Lebanese territory again.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007 

Lisbon - an Arab city in the heart of Europe

You won't hear many Arab voices in Lisbon. But look beneath the skin, and Lisbon's Arab history is all around.

In most parts of Portugal's capital you'd struggle to tell you're still in Europe. It's easy to spot Arab skin - but I'm not in the 'ethnic' quarter you'll find in most European capitals - the history of these people - who look Arab - stretches back centuries. They aren't Arabs living in Portugal. Portugal is Arab. The reminents of 400 years of Arab rule are everywhere.

There's the superficial - road names betray a connection with Arab world: Rua Monte Damasco, Vialle Jordan.

And there's the Damascus jam on sale. 'Damasco' is a type of peach, named after the Syrian capital.

But the Arab connection is more fundamental. The Portuguese language is made up of hundreds of Arabic words.

And venture into quarters like Mouraria (the Moorish district of Lisbon), and it feels more like a Beirut suburb than neighbouring capitals of Madrid, or Paris or Rome.

Crumbling houses, washing hanging from balconies, old women talking to their neighbours across the street from rooftop to rooftop, bakeries packed with morning customers, men sitting lazily in their cramped shop selling olives, nuts, sweets, washing powder, brushes...

Climb up the hill a little (because this city has almost no flat land, every street is a hill...a very steep hill) and you'll get to Se cathedral.

Arabs were in control of this city, and much of the Spanish peninsular until 1147. But the Europeans got their city back, eventually, and turned one of the mosques into a fabulous cathedral: the Se. A symbol of Christian dominance, the reverse, in many ways, of the Ummayid Mosque in Damascus (which used to be a church, and still houses the head of John the Baptist).

Down the other side of the hill is the cramped district of Alfama (the name comes from Al-Hama, the spring). It's the most crowded part of the city. And one of the poorest places in central Lisbon. Rent control means the big old families haven't been forced out, despite property developers desperate to get their hands on this prime location.

If Mouraria is like Beirut, Alfama is Damascus.

Close your eyes and you could almost...almost feel like you are in Damascus's Old City.

The smell of jasmine...the melissa tea being slurped in doorways as old men chat...the children running through the streets with their mothers in pursuit...the narrow passageways...the sense of adventure as you turn a corner...the old houses turned into dramatic restaurants...the lack of tourists...the flags fluttering from balconies.

And then you hear it. It sounds a little like someone's had too much to drink, and they've decided they can sing. The Fado 'houses' in Alfama are the birthplace of Lisbon's music (they're usually bars or restaurants, with an atmosphere reminiscent of the bars of Bab Sharqi).

Melancholy lyrics, often made up on the spur of the moment, are accompanied by the Arab oud (the lute).

The Arab history of this country is dotted all around the sights, the smells, the people, but most importantly, in Lisbon's culture. And it works the other way too - Damascus University has just started its first Portuguese course.

In the end, no matter how tolerant Arab rule of Lisbon was reputed to be, it was inevitable that it couldn't last forever. All occupation comes to an end at some point.

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Friday, March 16, 2007 

The New York Times article that the Lebanese Interior Minister should've read before opening his mouth

For the ignorant Lebanese, (yes, that means you Hassan As-Sabaa) the New York Times explains the difference between pro-Syrian Fatah Al-Intifada and anti-Syria (Al Qaeda aligned) Fatah Al-Islam.

"Late last November, Mr. Abssi moved into the Palestinian camp here, seized three compounds held by a secular group, Fatah al Intifada, raised his group’s black flag."

(The Lebanese government arrested four members of Fatah Al-Islam in connection with the bus bombings - and said Syria was behind the organisation - OOPS!).

New Face of Jihad Vows Attacks
March 16, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Deep in a violent and lawless slum just north of this coastal city, 12 men whose faces were shrouded by scarves drilled with Kalashnikovs.

In unison, they lunged in one direction, turned and lunged in another. “Allah-u akbar,” the men shouted in praise to God as they fired their machine guns into a wall.

The men belong to a new militant Islamic organization called Fatah al Islam, whose leader, a fugitive Palestinian named Shakir al-Abssi, has set up operations in a refugee camp here where he trains fighters and spreads the ideology of Al Qaeda.

He has solid terrorist credentials. A former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia who was killed last summer, Mr. Abssi was sentenced to death in absentia along with Mr. Zarqawi in the 2002 assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan, Laurence Foley. Just four months after arriving here from Syria, Mr. Abssi has a militia that intelligence officials estimate at 150 men and an arsenal of explosives, rockets and even an antiaircraft gun.

During a recent interview with The New York Times, Mr. Abssi displayed his makeshift training facility and his strident message that America needed to be punished for its presence in the Islamic world. “The only way to achieve our rights is by force,” he said. “This is the way America deals with us. So when the Americans feel that their lives and their economy are threatened, they will know that they should leave.”

Mr. Abssi’s organization is the image of what intelligence officials have warned is the re-emergence of Al Qaeda. Shattered after 2001, the organization founded by Osama bin Laden is now reforming as an alliance of small groups around the world that share a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam but have developed their own independent terror capabilities, these officials have said. If Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who has acknowledged directing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a string of other terror plots, represents the previous generation of Qaeda leaders, Mr. Abssi and others like him represent the new.

American and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say he is viewed as a dangerous militant who can assemble small teams of operatives with acute military skill.

“Guys like Abssi have the capability on the ground that Al Qaeda has lost and is looking to tap into,” said an American intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Mr. Abssi has shown himself to be a canny operator. Despite being on terrorism watch lists around the world, he has set himself up in a Palestinian refugee camp where, because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government. The camp also gives him ready access to a pool of recruits, young Palestinians whose militant vision has evolved from the struggle against Israel to a larger Islamic cause.

Intelligence officials here say that he has also exploited another source of manpower: they estimate he has 50 militants from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries fresh from fighting with the insurgency in Iraq.

The officials say they fear that he is seeking to establish himself as a terror leader on the order of Mr. Zarqawi. “He is trying to fill a void and do so in a high-profile manner that will attract the attention of supporters,” the American intelligence official said.

Mr. Abssi has recently taken on a communications adviser, Abu al-Hassan, 24, a journalism student who dropped out of college to join Fatah al Islam. His current project: a newsmagazine aimed at attracting recruits.

The arc of Mr. Abssi’s life shows the allure of Al Qaeda for Arab militants. Born in Palestine, from which he and family were evicted by the Israelis, Mr. Abssi, 51, said he stopped studying medicine to fly planes for Yasir Arafat. He then staged attacks on Israel from his own base in Syria. After he was imprisoned in Syria for three years on terrorism charges, he said he broadened his targets to include Americans in Jordan.

The Times arranged to speak with Mr. Abssi through a series of intermediaries, who helped set up meetings in his headquarters at the Nahr al Bared refugee camp. Mr. Abssi, a soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair, was interviewed in a bare room inside a small cinderblock building on the edge of a field where training was under way. About 80 men were in the compound, performing various tasks, including one who manned an antiaircraft gun. As Mr. Abssi spoke, two aides took notes, while a third fiddled with a submachine gun. A bazooka leaned against the wall behind him.

In a 90-minute interview, his first with Western reporters, Mr. Abssi said he shared Al Qaeda’s fundamentalist interpretation and endorsed the creation of a global Islamic nation. He said killing American soldiers in Iraq was no longer enough to convince the American public that its government should abandon what many Muslims view as a war against Islam.

“We have every legitimate right to do such acts, for isn’t it America that comes to our region and kills innocents and children?” Mr. Abssi said. “It is our right to hit them in their homes the same as they hit us in our homes.

“We are not afraid of being named terrorists,” he added. “But I want to ask, is someone who detonates one kilogram a terrorist while someone who detonates tons in Arab and Islamic cities not a terrorist?”

When asked, Mr. Abssi refused to say what his targets might be.

[This week, Lebanese law enforcement officials said they arrested four men from Fatah al Islam in Beirut and other Lebanese cities and were charging them with the February bombing of two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians. Mr. Abssi denies any involvement and says he has no plans to strike within Lebanon.]

Fertile Soil for Militants

Inside the Palestinian camp, Mr. Abssi seems to be building his operation with little interference.

Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, general director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, says the government does not have authority to enter a Palestinian camp — even though Mr. Abssi is now wanted in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria on terrorism charges.

To enter the camps, he said, “We would need an agreement from other Arab countries.” He said that instead the government was tightening its cordon around the camp to make it harder for Mr. Abssi or his men to slip in and out.

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have long been fertile ground for militancy, particularly focused on the fight against Israel. But militants in those camps now have a broader vision. In Ain el Hilwe camp, an hour’s drive south of Beirut, another radical Sunni group, Asbat al Ansar, has been sending fighters to Iraq since the start of the war, its leaders acknowledged in interviews.

“The U.S. is oppressing a lot of people,” the group’s deputy commander, who goes by the name of Abu Sharif, said in a room strewn with Kalashnikovs. “They are killing a lot of innocents, but one day they are getting paid back.” A leading sheik in the camp, Jamal Hatad, has a television studio that broadcasts 12 hours a day with shows ranging from viewer call-ins to video of Mr. bin Laden’s statements and parents proudly displaying photographs of their martyred children.

“I was happy,” Hamad Mustaf Ayasin, 70, recalled in hearing last fall that his 35-year-old son, Ahmed, had died in Iraq fighting American troops near the Syrian border. “The U.S. is against Muslims all over the world.”

On the streets of the camp, one young man after another said dying in Iraq was no longer their only dream.

“If I had the chance to do any kind of operation against anyone who is against Islam, inside or outside of the United States, I would do the operation,” said Mohamed, an 18-year-old student, who declined to give his last name.

Hussein Hamdan, 19, who keeps a poster of Osama bin Laden in the bedroom he shares with two sisters, is a street tough attuned to religious fundamentalism. He dropped out of school at age 10, spent 18 months in jail on assault charges, and in March — “just to make a statement,” he said — took a razor and repeatedly slashed both his forearms. “I want to become a mujahedeen and go to jihad in any country where there are Jews or Americans to fight against them,” he said.

Lebanon has increasingly become a source of terror suspects. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Lebanon, as did six men charged with planting bombs on German trains last summer. Two other Lebanese men and a Palestinian were among those accused last spring of plotting to blow up the PATH train tunnels beneath the Hudson River.

The Killing of Innocents

Mr. Abssi said he derived much of his spiritual guidance from Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Bukhari, a ninth-century Islamic scholar. A recent study by the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., listed Mr. Bukhari among the 20 Islamic scholars who had greater influence today among militant Arabs than Mr. bin Laden.

“Originally, the killing of innocents and children was forbidden,” Mr. Abssi said. “However, there are situations in which the killing of such is permissible. One of these exceptions is those that kill our women and children.”

“Osama bin Laden does make the fatwas,” Mr. Abssi said, using the Arabic word for Islamic legal pronouncements. “Should his fatwas follow the Sunnah,” or Islamic law, he said, “we will carry them out.”

His closest known association with Mr. Zarqawi involved the killing of Mr. Foley. In previously undisclosed court records obtained by The Times, Jordanian officials say that Mr. Abssi helped organize the assassination, working closely with Mr. Zarqawi.

A senior administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, Mr. Foley was leaving his home in Amman on Oct. 28, 2002, when he was shot at close range by a man who had hidden in his garage. Seven bullets from a 7-millimeter pistol struck his neck, face, chest and stomach, the Jordanian government said in court papers.

Eleven men were charged in the case, and two men have been hanged, including the gunman, Salem Sa’ad Salem bin Saweed. According to the court records, Mr. Saweed met Mr. Abssi five years earlier in Syria, where they became friends and “arranged military operations against American and Jewish interests in Jordan.” Mr. Zarqawi provided the $10,000, along with $32,000 more for additional attacks, the court papers say. But in meeting Mr. Saweed, Mr. Zarqawi told him to work through Mr. Abssi, who helped the gunman with money, logistics and training in weapons and explosives.

Mr. Saweed and an accomplice in Jordan chose Mr. Foley as a target by watching his neighborhood for cars bearing diplomatic plates.

A Valid Target

In the interview with The Times, Mr. Abssi acknowledged working with Mr. Zarqawi. He said he played no part in Mr. Foley’s death, but considered him a valid target. “I don’t know what Foley’s role was but I can say that any person that comes to our region with a military, security or political aim, then he is a legitimate target,” he said.

[Mr. Foley’s widow, Virginia Foley, said Wednesday that she thought her husband’s killers had either been killed or jailed. “I’m appalled and surprised that there is still somebody out there,” she said, when told of Mr. Abssi’s current activities.]

The American intelligence official said the prosecution of Mr. Foley’s killers was under the control of the Jordanians.

At the time of Mr. Foley’s death, Mr. Abssi had been in jail for two months, having been arrested on charges of plotting attacks inside Syria. He ultimately served three years in prison, says Mounir Ali, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.

Mr. Ali denied recent reports in Lebanon that Syria sent Mr. Abssi to that country to stir trouble there. “This accusation is baseless,” Mr. Ali said. “After he was set free he restarted his terrorist activities by training elements in favor of Al Qaeda.”

He said Syria sought his arrest in late January, but discovered Mr. Abssi had “disappeared, and no one knew where he went.”

Late last November, Mr. Abssi moved into the Palestinian camp here, seized three compounds held by a secular group, Fatah al Intifada, raised his group’s black flag, and issued a declaration saying he was bringing religion to the Palestinian cause. Mr. Abssi reappeared on Jordan’s radar in January when police had a three-hour battle with two suspected terrorists in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, killing one of the men. Authorities say they learned that Mr. Abssi had sent the men. A short while later, Lebanese authorities picked up two Saudi Arabian men leaving Mr. Abssi’s camp, and learned both men had fought in Iraq. Two more men were found leaving the camp in February, General Rifi said.

General Rifi said officials were trying to learn as much as possible about Mr. Abssi’s operation from sources and surveillance, but it was clear that their information was limited. In questioning people, security officials are showing a photograph of Mr. Abssi that is 30 years old, though it displays his most distinctive feature — two moles, one on each side of his nose.

The apparent inability to apprehend Mr. Abssi provokes fury in the men who are hunting him. A security official in one of the countries where he is wanted scowled when asked why Mr. Abssi was operating freely: “I can go lots of places to grab people, but I can’t grab him.”

In the interview with The Times, Mr. Abssi said he had been largely warmly received in the Palestinian camp, and that he was optimistic about his cause. “One of the reasons for choosing this camp is our belief that the people here are close to God as they feel the same suffering as our brothers in Palestine,” he said.

“Today’s youth, when they see what is happening in Palestine and Iraq, it enthuses them to join the way of the right and jihad,” he said. “These people have now started to adopt the right path.”

Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington, and Margot Williams from New York.



Stabbing in Damascus

A Kuwaiti has been stabbed in Damascus.

It is not clear why he was attacked, or whether anyone has been caught.

Attacks like this are rare in the Syrian capital.


Chess, Middle East style - by Wassim

Interesting analysis of the pressure on Syria by Wassim (reposted from the comments section):

Well I don't pretend to be an expert in politics, but I treat it like when I play chess, I look at all the possible reasons why somebody has made their move. Once his series of moves is done, his bluffs work or fail, then you can evaluate what he did and see why he made a particular move.

It's just too much of a coincidence that a steadily closing vice around Syria, Iran and Hezbullah was kicked off by the assassination of Hariri; a full scale, "Unexpected" war takes place a year later, and Iran's nuclear ambitions all provoke outcry while the situation in Iraq worsens. Now we see the American's sitting down with the Syrians and Iranians after going through yes, no, yes no thinking they can play a final card. Israel might be tempted to do something stupid, but right now it is too busy licking it's wounds.

Incidentally, how come things in Lebanon would quieten down only once Iran and Saudi Arabia meet calmly and "discuss" things over. Lebanon was and remains somebody else's battlefield unfortunately. However, this was one hell of a chess player who planned all this, and though it was a damn big gamble, it seems other people in the Middle East play chess too.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007 

EU supports return of Golan Heights to Syria

"We would like to work as much as possible to see your country Syria recuperate the territory taken in 1967," said EU Foreign Police chief Javier Solana in a joint press conference in Damascus, after meeting the President.

Incredible words from a man who was until last week boycotting Syria. The EU has ended its ban on contacts with Syria in remarkable style.

It will soon be 25 years since Israel annexed the territory, amid criticism from the UN, EU and even the United States.

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Brammertz to reveal who isn't co-operating with the Hariri inquiry

The mysterious ten.

Serge Brammertz, who is investigating the assasination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, said there are ten countries not co-operating. He also said Syria is "fully co-operating".

Russia threatened to take the issue to the Security Council, demanding to know which ten countries were obstructing the investigation. But Brammertz kept it a secret. Now, he is set to reveal the names in his next report.

They are said to include: France, Israel, the US, Jordan, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

Ironic, considering France and the US threatened Syria with "further action" if IT did not co-operate.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 

Lebanon blames "pro-Syrian" group for bus bombings...Syria says it has jailed members of the group

Important lesson for Lebanon's politicians here.

When you blame the usual scapegoat, make sure you know a little bit of background.

Lebanon's Interior Minister Hassan As-Sabaa yesterday said Syria was behind the bus bombing in Lebanon last month which killed three people.

Lebanon has arrested four members of Fateh Al-Islam. What As-Sabaa didn't realise was that Fateh Al-Islam is anti-Syria, and funded by Hariri.

And now a new revelation - Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majeed says they've already jailed one of the group's leaders, Shaker Al-Absi. Syria says the group plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Syria.

He was since released, and Syria now has an arrest warrant out for him.

Shaker al-Absi, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, used to be in contact with the late Al Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.



After years of waiting...

The EU has made an offer to Syria - work constructively in Lebanon, and your international isolation will end.

An EU spokesman made the announcement as EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana met Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus.

Today's meeting ends the EU's two-year long ban on high-level talks. It started after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. France blamed Syria, and blocked any contact.

Solana will hold a press conference soon - full details later. One important question - Solana has offered to end Syria's international isolation, but does that include America.


Was the Lebanese government indirectly behind the bus bombing

Lebanese Interior Minister Hassan As-Sabaa yesterday blamed Syria for the bus bombing which killed three people: "it's not secret that Fateh al-Islam is linked to Fateh al-Intifada which is part of the Syrian security and intelligence apparatus and cooperation between them is very strong."

Yesterday, I revealed that our friend Mr As-Sabaa doesn't know what he's talking about because the two groups split.

NOW, some very interesting detail from As'ad: "The founding declaration of Fath-Al-Islam when it split off from Fath-Al-Intifadah in fact criticized the corruption and links with "intelligence services", in clear reference to the Syrian control of Fath-Al-Intifadah. At the time, when the Syrian government arrested Abu Khalid Al-`Amlah and accused him of leading the schism, it accused Hariri Inc of funding Fath-Al-Islam."

Not only does the group being blamed for the bus bombing have NO links to Syria. It appears that they are linked to Hariri.

Ouch. it's coming back to bite you now isn't it.

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UPDATE: Syrians arrested over Lebanon bus bombing

The Lebanese police have contradicted their earlier statement that six Palestinians had been arrested in connection with last month's bus bombing.

They now say four Syrians are being held. They have all "confessed". A fifth one, they say, is on the run.

They say the Syrians belong to the Palestinian group Fateh Al-Islam. Lebanese Interior Minister Hassan As-Sabaa: "It's not secret that Fateh al-Islam is linked to Fateh al-Intifada which is part of the Syrian security and intelligence apparatus and cooperation between them is very strong."

In fact, As-Sabaa is wrong: Fateh Al-Islam broke away from Fateh Al-Intifada last year after disagreements.

As I said earlier this evening - a foreigner will be blamed for the attack, whether it is a Palestinian or a Syrian. Maybe a Sri Lankan maid will be blamed tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007 

Senior Lebanese official arrested for spying for Israel

A senior supervisor in Lebanon's general security service has been arrested, on suspicion of spying for Israel.

He was thought to have been gathering information on Hizbollah for Israel, and an unnamed European state.

He is said to have close contacts with Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

The man works at Beirut Airport, and security forces started monitoring him after becoming suspicious.

He allegedly even tried to recruit his colleagues.

He is said to have photographed Hizbollah buildings and offices. And when police searched his house, they found maps of Hizbollah centers and buildings in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut, in the Bekaa Valley and in southern Lebanon.


Six people "confess" over Lebanon bus bombings

Six Palestinians have confessed to bombing two buses north-east of Beirut last month.

Three people died in the attacks on February 13th. Government supporters said it was an attempt to disrupt memorial services the following day, to mark two years since the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri.

The six members of Fateh Al-Islam were arrested after explosives were found in an apartment in Ashrafiyeh, a Christian area in central Beirut.

Fateh Al-Islam broke away from Fateh Al-Intifada - a pro-Syrian group - last year. Fateh Al-Islam first emerged in the poor refugee camp of Bedawi, near Tripoli.

It was expected that, as usual, foreigners are to blame for Lebanon's problems. 'Pure' Lebanese are never responsible. No, they are some of the most irresponsible people on earth.



US says its visit to Syria was "useful"

The US government says its highest-level visit to Syria was "useful".

Bush sent Ellen Sauerbrey, the US assistant secretary of state for refugees and migration, to talk to Bashar.

US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said they had direct talks. A representative from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was expected to attend, so the US could say the US and Syria didn't have direct bilateral talks.

Sauerbrey was in Damascus to talk about the Iraqi refugees. The Syrians "expressed their willingness to continue hosting displaced Iraqis, although noting the burden that this does place on them and on their system," Casey said.

Bush asked his ambassador to leave Damascus two days after Rafiq Al-Hariri's assasination, clearly trying to pin the blame on Syria. But it is important to remember that the ambassador was just 'recalled', and not 'withdrawn'. If an ambassador is 'withdrawn' it means diplomatic ties are officially broken. An ambassador can be recalled to receive instructions in Washington, to do official business back home - or in this case, to apply pressure on Damascus.

It is just that this recall has lasted two years, and not one week.

It is an important point, and one that AP has slipped up on again and again.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007 

Achieving nothing

Syria and America have talked in Baghdad. That's all.

Oh, and they agreed it would be bad if sectarian violence spread through the region.

Meanwhile, America is sending another 4000 troops to Iraq.

But - it is a breakthrough that Syria and America have talked directly for the first time in two years. It is a sign of the thaw.

An American government official is also on her way to Damascus to discuss the refugee crisis there.

And the EU's head of Foreign Policy is also visiting Damascus to end Europe's boycott of Syria.

Saturday, March 10, 2007 

Mourning in Old Damascus

Shia Muslims have come from across the world to Damascus to celebrate one of the most important events of the year.

It is the end of forty days of mourning for the death of the Imam Hussein - he was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and Shias consider him to have been martyred. Every year, they mourn for forty days, as if he had died all over again.

They beat their chest, in sympathy with his pain.

The Imam Hussein was killed in Karbala, in Iraq - the scene of many, many more killings over the past four murderous years. And Shias would normally make a pilgrimage to Karbala.

But because of the violence and occupation, they have chosen to come to Damascus. To the Umayid Mosque.

The Umayid Mosque is a symbol of modern-day tolerance at the heart of one of the most religiously open cities in the Arab World. The Umayid Mosque is a site of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and for Christians too (there is a shrine to John the Baptist inside the huge main prayer hall - where his head is kept). And you know what, I've seen a few non-belivers in there too, making a cultural pilgrimage.

Damascus's best photographer, John Wreford, has captured these incredible images of Shia from across the world streaming through Souq Al-Hamidiyah towards the Umayid Mosque.

In a sign of the tolerance of this city, Christian children and adults celebrated the Feast of the Cross just meters away from where these pictures were taken a few weeks ago (in Bab Touma). Where else in the Arab World could these two events happen so freely.

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Friday, March 09, 2007 


A request: I need to contact Bob, from the excellent Nine Months in Syria blog.

Does anyone have his email address? There's nothing on his blog page, and no space to leave comments.


US State Department: We are willing to talk to Syria if they approach us

So that's it. The isolation is over.

The US says it WILL talk bilaterally at tomorrow's Iraq summit if Syria wants to. It had previously said it wouldn't talk to Syria alone.

It comes just hours after the EU announced it was re-starting its top-level relationship with Syria, after two years of isolation. It is sending its head of Foreign Policy, Javier Solana to Damascus.

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EU ends Syria boycott

The European Union's ending it's two-year freeze on high-level contacts with Syria after almost two years.

Head of Foreign Policy Javier Solana's going to visit Damascus for talks on Lebanon and Middle East peace.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern made the announcement at a meeting in Brussels.

France has tried to isolate Syria after accusations it was behind the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

More soon...



Priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood

This from As'ad.

Priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I expressed my contempt for the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood a few days ago. Today, they made strong statements against the Jordanian government.

They said that the government is:

1) neglecting the Arabic language in some official functions;

2) encouraging students to gravitate toward pornographic websites.

These are the worries of the Muslim Brotherhood. What do you expect from an organization that was raised by the colonial powers and their clients in the region.

And the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is the main opposition party - what hope do we have.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007 

Who has the most support in Lebanon - the government or opposition?

A very interesting survey by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar shows that more people agree with the opposition than the government.

The survey asks, do you blame the US for the crisis in Lebanon - that's the opposition's view - 50% say yes.

It asks, do you blame Syria and Iran for the crisis in Lebanon - that's the government's view - 35% say yes.

(So we've obviously got 15% which don't support either group)

The survey also shows that differences between the sects are as strong as ever.

It also shows that the Druze are at one end of the spectrum, with the Shia at the other end. The Druze are overwhelmingly pro-US, anti-Syria and the Shia are overwhelmingly the other way. What is interesting is the size of these percentages. So while there is some disagreement within the Sunni and Christian camps, the Druze and Shia are standing by their leaders to almost unbelievable extents.

The US is to blame for the political deadlock in Lebanon:

95% of Shia say yes

37% of Sunnis say yes

37% of Christians say yes

and amazingly, just 5% of Druze say yes

We see a similar breakdown when we ask...are Syria and Iran to blame for the crisis:

just 2% of Shia say yes

33% of Christians say yes

59% of Sunnis say yes

and 79% of Druze say yes

Full details here.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007 

Fewer than 20 political prisoners in Syria

Interesting piece from former Christian Science Monitor writer Helena Cobban.

"[Danial Saoud, the President of the venerable Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms in Syria - he was himself a political prisoner] told me that the number of (secular) political prisoners in the country is now less than 20."

Here's another quote: "For 18-24 months the Americans and Europeans have put a lot of pressure on the regime - but the regime then just pushes harder on us. ... Before the US invasion of Iraq, people here in Syria liked us, the human rights activists, and we had significant popular sympathy. But since what happened in Iraq, people here say 'Look at the results of that!' "

And the full piece:

The US and Syria, Human Rights and Democracy

As US 'democratization' efforts in the Middle East wane, human rights activists in Syria see their situation improving, says Helena Cobban.

I spent a few days in Damascus at the end of February, and was able to get a ground reality view of the effects of the Bush administration's (former) campaign for the forced 'democratization' of Middle Eastern societies on the work of Syrian citizens with long experience struggling for human rights and democracy in their country.

Bottom line: "Very bad indeed."

That was the verdict rendered on Bush's 'democratization' campaign by Danial Saoud, the President of the venerable Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms in Syria (CDF).

Saoud was himself a political prisoner from 1987 through 1999, and has been President of the CDF since August 2006. He was adamant that what Syria's rights activists need most of all right now is a resolution of their country's state of war with Israel.

Speaking of Condoleezza Rice he said, "Her pressure on the regime had a very bad effect for us. Now, for 18-24 months the Americans and Europeans have put a lot of pressure on the regime - but the regime then just pushes harder on us."

Mazen Darwish, who is Saoud's colleague in the CDF's three-person Presidential Council, told me, "Before the US invasion of Iraq, people here in Syria liked us, the human rights activists, and we had significant popular sympathy. But since what happened in Iraq, people here say 'Look at the results of that!'"

Saoud stressed that for Syrians, the question of Israel's continued occupation of Syria's Golan region itself constitutes a significant denial of the rights of all the Syrian citizens affected - both those who remain in Golan, living under Israeli military occupation rule there, and those who had fled when Israel occupied Golan in 1967 and have had to live displaced from their homes and farms for the 40 years since then. "Golan is Syrian land, and we have all the rights to get it back," he said.

In addition, he and the other rights activists I talked with pointed to the fact that the continuing state of war between Syria and Israel has allowed the Syrian regime to keep in place the State of Emergency that was first imposed in the country in 1963. "All these regimes in this area say they are postponing the issue of democracy until after they have solved the issues of Golan and Palestine," he said,

"So let's get them solved! Everything should start from this. The people in both Syria and Israel need peace. We need to build a culture of peace in the whole area. ... The CDF is working hard to build this culture."

Both men pointed out the numerous contradictions and ambiguities in the policy the United States has pursued regarding democratization in Syria. Darwish noted that, "When the US had a good relationship with Syria, in 1991, Danial was in prison - and the US didn't say anything about that." These two men, and other rights activists I talked with also noted that more recently, even during the Bush administration's big push for 'democratization' in Syria in 2004-2005, they were still happy to benefit from Syria's torture chambers by sending some suspected Al-Qaeda people there to be tortured.

Over the past year, two processes have been underway in Syria that seem to confirm these activists' argument that US pressure on the Damascus regime has been detrimental to their cause. Firstly, the rapid deterioration in the US' power in the region has considerably diminished Washington's ability to pressure the Syria regime on any issues, and Damascus has become notably stronger and self-confident than it was a year ago.

Secondly, over the same period, the situation of human rights activists within the country seems to have improved some.

Saoud told me that the number of (secular) political prisoners in the country is now less than 20. Indeed, the day we talked, about 16 Kurdish and student activists who had been held for less than a month had just been released. He said "No-one knows how many Islamist activists are in detention... We don't hear about them until they come to court." He said, "They don't torture people like Anwar al-Bunni or Michel Kilo, or the others who were detained last year for having signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration." He indicated, however, that it was very likely that many of the Islamist detainees had been tortured. (Human Rights Watch's recently released report for 2006 states that in Syria, "Thousands of political prisoners, many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party, remain in detention.)

Meanwhile, the main factor dominating political developments in Syria, as in the rest of the Middle East, is the continued and extremely painful collapse of conditions inside Iraq. Syrians have watched that collapse in horror. Their country has received and given a temporary refuge to more than a million Iraqis - a considerable burden on their nation, equivalent to the US taking in some 17 million refugees within just a couple of years. And since Iraq's collapse has occurred under a Washington-advertised rubric of "democratization," the whole tragedy in Iraq has tended to give the concept a very bad name, and has caused Arabs and Muslims throughout the Middle East to value political stability much, much more than hitherto.

Under those circumstances, it is very moving to still hear people living in Arab countries talking about the need for democracy. But when they do so, they are very eager to distance themselves from the coerciveness inherent in Washington's recent 'democratization' project. And they all - regime supporters and oppositionists, alike-stress the need for moves toward democratization to grow from the local people's needs and priorities, rather than the geo-strategies pursued by distant Washington.

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Kilo trial delayed

Michel Kilo's trial has been delayed again.

He was due to be released in October, but that was changed at the last minute. It seems there is a battle at the heart of government between reformists and the old guard. Some obviously want him freed, others want him to stay in jail.

For those calling for him to be freed, the motives are clear - it is harming the Syrian government much more by keeping him locked up, than his writing could ever do.

And then there are those who want him to stay in jail - he can't write, and he can't leave the country. It's the only way, they think, to keep a lid on him.

Which side will win this tug of war? Only a trial will give a definitive answer. So it's easy to see why the trial date is being postponed, often at the last minute.

The new trial date is March 27.


Monday, March 05, 2007 

Michel Kilo trial delayed until March 27

The trial of Michel Kilo has been postponed again, this time until March 27. More soon...



Bravo Libya

Libya has boycotted the Arab League summit, saying it is not serious about working together.

Abd El Rahman Shalgam, Libya's foreign minister, said the Arab world "is not serious" and that "joint Arab action is dysfunctional".

"Germany and Spain can have different views and also Spain and Italy but there is seriousness in the European actions when they have to act together.

"There is no seriousness in the Arabic actions. For instance, they [Arab countries] consider Iran now as an enemy, not Israel, what is this nonsense?"


Sunday, March 04, 2007 

Give me freedom

"Thus, for well over a century, the American people said "No" to such anti-free-market government policies as income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare ... drug laws, gun control."

The Future of Freedom Foundation, getting rid of governments.


Friday, March 02, 2007 

Iraq's UN Ambassador: Syria is doing a good job on the Iraq-Syria border

Just two weeks before a crucial meeting between Syria and the US in Baghdad, Iraq's Ambassador to the UN says Syria is doing everything it can to protect the border with Iraq.

It has been a frequent American accusation that Syria isn't doing enough.

But Hamid Al Bayati praised Syria for stopping attackers crossing the border. He says other countries now need to do their bit to help: "[Syria] expected at the beginning for the Americans to give such [surveillance equipment including night vision cameras]. They said that the Americans didn't give them such equipment, so they can't guard the borders," he said.

America accuses Syria, while Iraq praises Syria but says America needs to pull its weight. Sound familiar?

Refugees in Syria - UN praises Syria for taking one million Iraqi refugees...but asks America to pull its weight.

Hariri inquiry - UN praises Syria's "full co-operation"...but says 10 countries have blocked the inquiry (thought to include America).

Peace with Israel - Israel says it wants to talk to Syria, Syria says it wants to talk to Israel...but America blocks peace talks.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007 

The objectivity of Michel Young

"Partisanship is defensible - many of us make no claims to objectivity"

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Stifling dissent

When an obituary turns into a critique that can't be replied to.

Well, that's what the Arab neo-cons like - giving their own opinion, and masking others' opinions.

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Senior US State Department official to visit Syria - mending the US-Syria relationship

Twice in one week.

You wait years for the US to talk to Syria, then you get two promises of discussions in one week.

First, they announce a conference in Iraq, to be attended by both countries in two weeks. And now, a senior US State Department official is visiting Syria.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration, will discuss the Iraqi refugee crisis with the Syrian government. She has previously supported dialogue with Syria: "I think that anytime that you can get parties talking to each other that something constructive has a likelihood of coming out of it."

Syria is home to one million Iraqi refugees, and has recently tightened its entry requirements, prompting the UN to call on the world to help Syria deal with its migrant community.

President Bush recalled his ambassador to Damascus two days after the Hariri killing. The embassy remains open, but Bush has blocked anyone at the embassy from talking to Syrian officials.

"Her visit is a way of saying we appreciate that Syria is permitting so many Iraqis to stay there and give them at least a safe place to be. That's an important gesture," says Dawn Calabia , a senior adviser at Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group.

It comes just weeks after Republican Senator Arlen Specter (from the same political party as Bush) visited Damascus - when he returned he told Bush that talking to Syria about the refugee issue would be a good way of rebuilding the US-Syria relationship.

Interestingly, today's announcement was accompanied by the following message: "...according to a State Department official, who asked to speak anonymously because he was not authorized to talk publicly on the issue." A disclaimer often used by Syrian officials.

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US says it won't talk directly to Syria

The US says it won't hold private talks with Syria when officials from the two countries attend a conference next month in Iraq.

"There will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. He said the talks will only focus on Iraq, but he conceeded that if other topics come up, the US may discuss them.

This is Syria's opportunity to push its agenda.

When both countries agreed to attend, hopes were raised of a much awaited dialogue between the two countries.

Another meeting is planned for April - rumoured to be in Istanbul - with the Foreign Ministers of Syria and the US possibly attending.

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Syria confirms it will attend meeting with US

Syria says it will attend a mid-March meeting with US officials in Iraq.

It is the first time top level officials from both countries have talked for more than two years.

"Talking with the United States about Iraq is a partial step in the right direction. All the problems in the region are interlinked," said a Syrian Foreign Ministry official, mirroring comments by the US yesterday.

Iraq says this month's meeting will be an ice-breaking event.

In April, there will be a ministerial gathering - Syria says it's too early to decide whether they will attend.

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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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