Russia to open ports in Syria?

This kind of takes you back to history class, Russia’s perennial search for a warm-water port, the Crimean War and all that:

In early June, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported Moscow’s decision to establish naval bases in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. The Russian Defense Ministry officially denied the report, even though more than one source confirmed it.

As part of the plan, the port of Tartus would be transformed into a naval base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet when it is away from the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. The Russian plan involves the installation of an air defense system with S-300PMU-2 Favorit ballistic missiles. The missiles have a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles), allow a larger warhead and are equipped with a better guidance system than the previous version. The air defense system would be operated by Russia for the defense of the Tartus base and would provide potential protection for a large part of Syria. Through these initiatives, it is clear that Russia wants to strengthen its position in the Middle East.

Read the rest here.

Continue reading Russia to open ports in Syria?

Al Hayat interview with Bashar Assad

In which he discusses (with editor Ghassan Charbel and Damascus bureau chief Ibrahim Hamidi)Syria’s relationship with Jordan, Egypt’s negotiation of behalf of mini-Hariri, Arab fears of Iran’s growing regional role, growing sectarianism in Lebanon, his willingness to deal with anyone in Lebanon (Aoun, mini-Hariri, Seniora, etc.) except Walid Jumblatt and maybe Jacques Chirac. Although the interview doesn’t make earth-shattering revelations, Bashar handles it pretty well overall.

This is part one, and in part two (not yet online) he apparently says there’s a growing Al Qaeda presence in Lebanon.

Tunisia Ejects Amnesty International Representative

Those nasty, nasty little thugs that run Tunisia have thrown out Yves Steiner, an Amnesty International Representative who was attending a meeting in Tunis. Surely the least of their crimes, but worth highlighting.

But of course you would never read about it in Jeune Afrique, whose cover last week was a special on Dracula Ben Ali’s wonderful plans for the next decade.

Syria helping foreign fighters in Iraq?

Yesterday, Bush threatened Syria and Iran that if they continue to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs in the lead-up to Allawi’s “election” on 30 January, there would be unspecified trouble against unspecified people.
Confusing? Yeah…..

The BBC filed this report this morning.

Two key parts:
1) Bush stated at the joint press conference with Berlusconi, “We will continue to make it clear, to both Syria and Iran that, as will other nations in our coalition… that meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests.” – This is a guised threat against Syria.

2) Directly from the report, “As for Syria, the highest levels of government did not appear to have sanctioned such activity but there was a ‘significant amount’ of both financial support and movement across the border of foreign fighters, he [Bush] said.” – Double-speak: Although we threaten Syria, its leaders may not be involved.

What does this mean?
Apparently they are very tenuously insinuating that Syria and Iran had something to do with the bomb in Karabala that killed 7 and wounded 30.

Yet if we go back a few weeks to the Fallujah report, there is no evidence that there was a massive influx of foreign fighters. Juan Cole also has several comments on Informed Comment in November documenting the lack of foreign fighters.

Are we to believe there are no foreign fighters in Fallujah because they are in Karbala?

And if we buy this logic leap, do we assume it is Iran and Syria and not Saudi or some place else from which these imagined army of foreign fighters come from?

Syria released Muslim Brothers

A presidential pardon has been granted to 112 Syrian political detainees, the BBC reports:

It is reported to be the biggest single amnesty for three years. The official Sana news agency said it was part of an “open and tolerant policy”.

Those freed are thought be Islamist activists from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The head of the Syria’s Human Rights Association welcomed the move, but said President Bashar al-Assad should have freed all political detainees.

Haitham al-Maleh said some of those set free had been held for more than 10 years.

The question, as always, is why now? The Brotherhood was long considered the regime’s greatest threat; it appeals to the Sunni majority and was the only social force to show any real opposition to Alawi-dominated the military regime. At its peak between 1978 and 1982, it was quite a formidable force. So much that the regime sent out squads of “socialist women” to rip the veils off conservative women. That all ended with the Hama massacre in 1982, when between 15,000 and 40,000 people died after the army bombed the town of Hama when the Brothers took control of it.

In other Syria news, a new English-language publication has come out there, Syria Today. Several of the founders are friends of mine, and I wish them good luck. But expect this to be a mostly economic publication (as the first issue is), as I doubt there is the margin of movement for the press to deal with substantial political questions. Still, it’s a beginning and should provide interesting information about the business elite in that untransparent country.

Also, the Washington Post has a story quoting US military intelligence saying that the Iraqi insurgency may be directed from Syria by Baathists who found refuge there. However, not everyone is buying that:

Some U.S. officials in Baghdad resented the briefing, which they saw not only as a form of long-distance micromanagement but also as misguided in its recommendations. For example, some fear that it could lead to a resumption of the tough tactics used sometimes last year as the insurgency emerged, such as taking families hostage to compel an insurgent leader to turn himself in. Subsequent internal Army reviews have criticized such tactics as counterproductive.

One person familiar with the situation said that Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. general in the region, was sent a copy of the briefing and responded by sending a classified cable politely dismissing it and stating that he believes that U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq have the situation in hand. A spokesman at Abizaid’s headquarters, the U.S. Central Command, declined to comment on that exchange.

Neither Lawrence T. Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, nor Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, the spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had any comment for this article.

Pentagon Kremlinologists will have a field day with this. Also, I wasn’t aware that the US army was using tactics like “taking families hostage to compel an insurgent leader to turn himself in.”


Hamas: Arab State May Have Helped in Syria Killing:

“We were not convinced initially, this would be treason for an Arab security apparatus to be involved in this,” Hamas Lebanon head Osama Hamdan said of a report in the Al-Hayat daily.

The Arabic daily said an Arab country had given the Israeli spy agency Mossad information about the movements and habits of Hamas leaders abroad.

“Now, because of what happened yesterday or through other information, there are indications that this may be case,” he said.”

I would bet on Jordan, or perhaps even the Syrians themselves. Who else would have that kind of information? And why would they share it with Israel — what would they get in return? Hell, you can’t even dismiss the possibility that it could be Egypt considering the difficulty it is having in negotiating with Hamas these days, and the fact that it will sooner or later have to confront it in Gaza if the pullout takes place. If we’re lucky, we’ll known in ten years. If we’re not, we’ll either never know at all or find out soon enough after someone gets assassinated.

Update: It looks like they think it’s Jordan. And some people do think they will hit back:

Hamas may retaliate by striking outside Israel, ex-ambassador says:

Retaliation against Israelis outside their country could follow last weekend’s assassination in Damascus of a Hamas official, a respected Canadian analyst on the Middle East said yesterday.

“There will be a tendency to explore overseas operations,” said Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt”

Bush launches sanctions against Syria

I missed a few days ago with the whole Saddam capture thing, but it’s worth noting that President Bush has (reluctantly?) signed the Syria Accountability Act.

The legislation says Syria has provided a safe haven for anti-Israel terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and is accused of pursuing the development and production of biological and chemical weapons.

It states that Syria must end its support of terrorists, terminate its 27-year military presence in Lebanon, stop efforts to obtain or produce weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles and interdict terrorists and weapons from entering Iraq.

If Syria fails to meet those conditions, the president must ban sales of dual-use items, which can have both civilian and military applications.

He also must impose at least two out of a list of six possible penalties: a ban on exports to Syria, prohibition of U.S. businesses’ operating in Syria, restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the United States, limits on Syrian airline flights in the United States, reduction of diplomatic contacts or a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States.

At the White House’s insistence, the law gives Bush broad leeway to waive both the dual-use ban and the two sanctions on the basis of national security, or after determining that Syria has taken the actions required.

The White House may therefore choose to limit the effects of the Act, and it seems that for now that none of it has been implemented yet. Syria has called for dialogue with the US, and other Arab countries have also urged Washington to use a different approach to deal with Damascus, and this may a type of negotiating tactic. On the other hand, the Bush administration is usually direct about its feelings and some think that this is opening the way to war against Syria:

The Accountability Act sets out, in even more detail than the administration had done over Iraq, a host of reasons for an invasion of Syria. And of course President Bush did not forget to mention the lack of democracy in Syria in his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6th, where he invoked democratization as his expediently retrospective rationale for invading Iraq.

I’m not sure whether the Bush administration could afford another war even if it wanted to, but a doubt lingers in my mind. I still remember when Richard Armitage went to Lebanon and said that Hizbullah was the “A-Team” of terrorism and Al Qaeda only the B-Team. Speaking of Hizbullah, it’s worth mentioning that it is hardly the terrorist group it used to be, having morphed into a thriving political party and provider of social services for disaffected Lebanese Shias.

NYT on Syria

Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times snatched a rare interview of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on December 1, which Assad used to call for renewed US-brokered negotiations for peace between Israel and Syria in the context . The main feeling from the interview is that Assad is growing increasingly concerned with the US disrupting regional stability — a status quo that the Assad regime has benefited from for over 30 years.

Recent events in the Middle East, like the Israeli attack on what it described as a terrorist training camp in Syria in October, have left the impression that Damascus has little leverage and a shrinking regional role. But Mr. Assad suggested that Syria could be an important component to solving both violent conflicts in the Middle East — in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories.

There can be no peace in the region without Syria,” he said. “And Syria is important for the future stability in Iraq due to its credibility and its being a neighbor to Iraq.”

In contrast to Syria’s previous belligerent statements about the need for an immediate end to the American occupation of Iraq, however, Mr. Assad softened his country’s position. Asked how he felt about having 100,000 American soldiers as his newest neighbors, he sounded almost resigned.

“The problem is not whether you have one American soldier or a million American soldiers on your borders,” he said. “And the problem is not whether they are going to stay one year or 10 years. The problem is whether the U.S. is going to become a power for achieving turbulence in the region instead of being an element of stability.”

Also read the last few paragraphs where Assad makes a pathetic attempt to defend his reform program and the widespread corruption among his family.

The NYT’s editorial board commented on the interview two days later with a dismissive piece on “The Syrian Leader’s Curious World.”

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria understands that he no longer lives in his father’s Middle East, where brutal repression at home, the refusal to deal with Israel and cozy relations with terrorist groups and rogue regimes were enough to ensure decades of unchallenged power. That much comes across in an interview with our colleague Neil MacFarquhar in The Times on Monday. What is less clear is whether Mr. Assad, the son and successor of Hafez al-Assad, fully grasps the magnitude of the challenge he has inherited, and so far failed to meet.

While the NYT is undoubtedly right to highlight Syria’s long-standing hardline stance towards Israel and its own lack of democracy — it has paved the way for the hereditary republics that seem to be looming in Egypt and Libya — its argument about Assad’s rejection of a peace deal with Israel brokered by Bill Clinton in 2000 is dubious at best, considering how little is known about the deal in question or the seriousness of negotiations taking place. Past and current Israeli governments, reluctant to give up the West Bank, do not seem any more eager to relinquish the Golan Heights.