News Round Up (Dec 11, 2005)
Syrians are again becoming anxious as Mehlis' second report goes to the UN tonight. If Syria is hit with sanctions it will be the worst of both worlds. The government will have cooperated, stalled and been socked with sanctions. The fall of the lira from 54 to a dollar to 59 has hit the confidence of Syrians hard. No other event has made people grumble as much as seeing their net worth go up in smoke. Despite Dardari's efforts to reassure Syrians that the pound is solid, no one is buying it. If there is a further devaluation, not only his credibility, but that of the regime will be badly hurt.
Syria slows sanctions momentum at U.N.
By SAM F. GHATTAS
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
Saturday, December 10, 2005
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria, reeling under international pressure just a few weeks ago for its alleged role in a Lebanese political assassination, has largely managed to blunt momentum toward sanctions. In the short term, at least, the United States and Syria seem to have settled into a wary standoff.
Points marked up in the Syrian column recently include a witness recanting damaging testimony he gave to the U.N. investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination, the decision by probe's chief investigator to quit rather than extend his tenure and a modicum of cooperation by Damascus as demanded by the United Nations, the United States and France.
And the United States, preoccupied with Iraq, does not seem to be eager to push Damascus too hard, fearing the destabilization of yet another Middle Eastern country.
But those pressing the case against the Syrians say Damascus has only temporarily blunted the investigation.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Saturday repeated Syria's innocence in Hariri's death and its promise of cooperation, saying any further international measures against Damascus would be "unjust and unjustified."
"They're not off the hook yet, but the pressure is not as great as it was before," said the British writer Patrick Seale, an expert on Syria. Syria also has benefited from Saudi mediation to ease the pressure on Damascus and the imbroglio over CIA rendition of terror suspects to special prisons in Central and Eastern Europe.
When the chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis submits his findings to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Sunday, there is speculation that he may name as suspects senior Syrian officers - the former intelligence chief in Lebanon and his deputy - seek their arrest and demand more cooperation from President Bashar Assad's regime.
His report will be taken up this week by the U.N. Security Council, which also will decide whether to concede Lebanon's request to extend the commission's mandate for six more months beyond its Dec. 15 extension.
On Oct. 31, the Security Council warned Syria to cooperate with the probe or face further action - diplomatic parlance for sanctions. The threat was issued after Mehlis' first report implicated Syrian and allied Lebanese intelligence services in the murder.
Underscoring U.S. resolve, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice led the American delegation to the gathering of foreign ministers who took up the issue at the council then.
Mehlis, reportedly citing personal and other reasons related to his work as a prosecutor in Germany, has said he would step down after submitting his second report this week. But the Syrians and their allies appear to believe the decision stems from Mehlis' failure to find direct evidence in the investigation.
Syria's attempts to discredit the probe have managed to cast a shadow on the investigation's credibility - at least in the region.
"But if Mehlis comes up with something hard (on evidence), of course, the spotlight will shift back," Seale told The Associated Press from Paris.
Since the Security Council warning, Assad has promised Syria's cooperation, but that will stop - in his own words - if Syrian interests are harmed. Also working in Syria's favor is its ally, Russia, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, which opposes sanctions.
"Certainly there is no question of sanctions for the moment, unless this (Mehlis) committee will come up with fresh witnesses and more convincing evidence," Seale said.
Instead, there is speculation of an undeclared deal by which senior Syrian officials would be spared the responsibility in the Beirut truck bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others, leaving lower-level officers as scapegoats.
"Something is in the works, which says that responsibility be limited to a certain level of Syrian officials and lower-ranking ones," the Lebanese political analyst Sarkis Naoum said.
The names of top Syrian officials - Assad's brother and his brother-in-law - were removed from the previous report in what was seen then as a U.N. attempt to soften the findings.
"The Syrians are suspects. Do you want to confront the whole regime, or do you want to contain the damage?" Naoum said on a popular talk show on LBC TV. The columnist in the leading An-Nahar daily said the Americans were not seeking regime change in Syria for now.
But that does not mean the United States will ease the pressure on Damascus or return to the status quo.
The Mehlis investigation is believed to have uncovered strong evidence implicating the Syrians - evidence that goes beyond that recanted by Husam Taher Husam, the Syrian intelligence operative. Mehlis, in comments Friday, said he was satisfied with the evidence he had and that the recanted statements will have no effect on the probe.
Syria's opponents warn that Damascus is running out of options. "The international noose is tightening," said the outspoken anti-Syrian politician Walid Jumblatt, "and the killers will fall one after the other."
Beirut-based correspondent Sam F. Ghattas has covered Lebanese and Mideast affairs since 1982.
Talks about Syria’s future show differences between Israel, U.S.
By Ron Kampeas
December 6, 2005
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 (JTA) — When it comes to Syria today, Israel and the United States agree that President Bashar Assad is bad news.
The subject of Syria tomorrow, however, exposes differences between the allies.
The United States already is thinking about a post-Assad Syria as a building block in its efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East. But Israel fears Assad’s departure could make the situation even worse.
Israel does not regard the differences with the United States as urgent, since it doesn’t believe Assad is going anywhere soon. But the Bush administration’s hard line is jarring enough that the Israelis now raise the issue in the U.S.-Israel dialogue.
Israel raised three possible post-Assad scenarios at a strategic dialogue session with the United States last week, none of them good: chaos, an Islamist regime or another strongman from Assad’s minority Alawite sect who might roll back the few civil rights and economic reforms Assad has allowed.
The Americans at the meeting, led by Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state, dismissed the notions of an Islamist regime or chaos, according to various sources familiar with the meeting.
Instead, Burns said Assad’s departure could be “transformative.” He suggested it could even lead to elections, as happened in Lebanon when Syria finally ended its three-decade occupation earlier this year.
If another strongman takes Assad’s place, the Americans said they would regard it as just a temporary step until democracy comes about.
Burns’ comments were of a piece with recent hints that the administration could ratchet up pressure on Syria, including new sanctions. President Bush also has called on Syria to unconditionally release political prisoners.
“The Syrian government must cease its harassment of Syrians peacefully seeking to bring democratic reform to their country,” Bush said last month, language stronger than the more polite hints he has issued to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both U.S. allies, to do the same.
The pressure has rattled the Syrians.
“The Syrian people and the Syrian government are very worried because of the intransigent attitude of the United States administration toward Syria,” Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador, said last month on PBS’ “One on One” with John McLaughlin.
Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University scholar considered Israel’s foremost Syria expert, marveled at the American confidence about a peaceful post-Assad Syria. Even if democracy does rise in Syria, there’s no way of predicting which party would emerge triumphant, Maoz said, considering how opaque Syrian society is and how fluid the situation would become.
“Who’s going to run for elections? Do they know?” he asked. “The question ‘what does America want from Syria,’ it’s not very clear.”
The Israelis are profoundly unhappy with Assad’s continued backing of Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and his headquartering of Palestinian terrorist groups in Damascus. But some Israeli analysts have suggested that the government prefers to have Assad in power because of his rogue status: If he were replaced by a more moderate leader, the thinking goes, Israel might be pressured to resume peace talks with Syria and return the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel also recognizes that Assad does give in under intense pressure, as evidenced by the Lebanon withdrawal.
Assad also has increased patrols along the Syria-Iraq border under threat of further sanctions, and this week allowed five top Syrian officials to cooperate with the U.N. investigation into the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister.
Assad could do more, Maoz said, but it makes sense for him not to give up everything immediately.
Holding back on concessions “is a card in his hands; he cannot give up his cards,” Maoz said. “There are no free lunches.”
What concerns Israelis is that nothing Assad does appears to dent the Bush administration’s determination to keep up the pressure. Asked by JTA about Syria, a State Department spokeswoman would only repeat months-old talking points: “Their cooperation is crucial with the U.N. investigation, they must take action on any use of their territory by the insurgency in Iraq.”
When it was noted that Syria now was cooperating with the U.N. inquiry and had taken some measures to secure the border with Iraq, the spokeswoman refused to comment further.
Another sign of Bush’s seriousness is his signing last month of a bill extending to Syria sanctions currently in place on Iran.
Bush has yet to fully use potential sanctions he has at hand from the 2003 Syria Accountability Act, and he might delay using the new sanctions. But their severity is an unmistakable signal: The new bill targets third parties and nations that deal with Syria, which could force countries to choose between the Syrian and U.S. economies, hardly a dilemma.
Maoz suggests a carrot-and-stick approach; Assad already has survived for five years, since his father died, which could mean he’s entrenched for the long run, Maoz said.
“There is always the possibility of changing the behavior of Bashar,” Maoz said. “Show him they mean business, bribe him, induce him.”
Making the case for Syria
Israel weighs Syria options
Michael Ledeen calls for "regime change" for Iran and Syria
President Bush is keeping up the pressure on Syria in preparation for the next interim Mehlis report by calling for greater democracy in Syria and restating that it is a place of un-freedom.
Bush urges Syria to release some prisoners
Sat Dec 10, 2005 4:20 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush, echoing a call made a month earlier, urged Syria on Saturday to immediately release opposition activist Kamal al-Labwani and at least eight other prisoners.
In a written statement, White House spokesman Scott McClellan accused Syria of denying opposition activists "the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression," and called for the harassment to end.
Labwani was arrested by Syrian authorities in Damascus on November 8 after he visited the United States, where he attended a meeting at the White House. In a November 10 statement, the White House said it was "deeply disturbed" by reports of Labwani's arrest on his arrival back in Damascus.
"President Bush calls on the Syrian government to immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Labwani and all other prisoners of conscience, including Habib Saleh and Nizar Rastanawi, as well as ... Arif Dalilah, Riad Seif, Mamun al-Homsi, Walid al Bunni, Habib Issa, and Fawaz Tello," McClellan said in the new statement.
"The imprisonment of these and other Syrian prisoners of conscience is just one example of the government of Syria's ongoing repression of the Syrian people. The Syrian government must cease its harassment of Syrians peacefully seeking to bring democratic reform to their country," McClellan said.
The United States accuses Syria of allowing foreign insurgents to cross its border into Iraq, supporting Palestinian and Lebanese militants, and continued meddling in Lebanon.
Syria could face sanctions if it is judged not to have cooperated fully with a U.N. investigation into the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Policing a no man’s land between Iraq and Syria
Troops work against decades-old smuggling tradition
By Monte Morin, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, December 11, 2005
SINJAR, Iraq — Times are tough in Donkey Town.
For more than 30 years, Arab tribesmen in this small, dusty village have earned their keep by smuggling cigarettes, goats and gasoline — as well as the odd home appliance — across the 100-yard-wide no man’s land separating Iraq and Syria.
But now, as the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces employ helicopters, night-vision cameras and roving ground patrols to plug gaps in the once-porous border of northwest Iraq, men of the J’heash tribe are feeling the pinch.
“Those helicopters have cut off our income,” one man complained during a recent meeting with Lt. Col. Gregory D. Reilly, commander of the the 1st, or “Tiger,” Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
“We haven’t been doing much work here at all,” said the man, who belongs to the J’heash, or “Donkey” tribe. “Our donkeys are dying off.”
The complaints that Reilly fielded one recent afternoon during a tour of the border attest to the success of the combined interdiction effort — particularly the use of night helicopter patrols, which have spotted most of the 100-odd smugglers captured or turned back in the last months.
Yet in the Wild West environment that is present-day Iraq, Reilly has to consider whether or not his squadron’s success in shutting down border smuggling will, in the end, turn the unemployed smugglers into insurgents.
Balancing trade with terror
Donkey Town is just one of many small border villages and towns whose livelihoods depend on smuggling. While a primary goal of shutting down smuggling is to stop insurgents and arms from flowing over the border, the job is a balancing act.
“There’s been talk of an exchange point for things that normally go across the border, like sheep, but no terrorists,” Reilly told the gathered men through an interpreter. “We want to set something up where things can cross, it just has to be checked. We’re working on that.”
Then, after a moment of thought, Reilly said to his interpreter: “Don’t get their hopes built up on that at all.”
Tiger Squadron is responsible for policing more than 200 miles of border between the Tigris River and Anbar Province. The squadron is also responsible for training Iraqi Border Patrol personnel so someday they can secure the border themselves.
In most areas, the border between Iraq and Syria is delineated by two crude earthen berms about a meter high and running parallel to each other. Between the two ridges is a 100- to 200-meter-wide no man’s land. It is this expanse of dry, barren earth that the smugglers are so eager to cross, using donkeys as the primary mode of transportation.
Smuggling as a way of life
Tiger Squadron’s stretch of border is studded with some 40 border forts — brick and stone compounds surrounded by open land. In certain areas, deep, dry riverbeds, or waddis, cut from one side of the border to another, giving smugglers ample cover to move.
On dark, moonless nights, smugglers use a network of flashlights to signal one another from opposite sides of the border, warning of patrols or indicating that the coast is clear.
Initially, the U.S. military expected to find many foreign fighters and arms flowing over the northwest border in the wake of a series of anti-insurgent operations to the south, in Anbar Province. Border patrols have intercepted a handful or more of suspected insurgents, but the military anticipated more.
Now, commanders like Reilly suspect that the regular “everyday” goods smugglers pack across the border may in some way be used to finance the insurgency.
The attitudes and economics of controlling Iraqi border are complex. For many years — during the time of U.N. sanctions — Saddam’s regime encouraged, or looked the other way, when it came to smugglers.
But even before sanctions, there was the issue of the borders themselves. When the English drew up the boundaries of Iraq after World War I, the lines often cut through tribal and familial territories.
“The only reason this berm is here is because some British mapmaker drew a line on a piece of paper 100 years ago,” said Capt. Richard Garrison, who trains Iraqi Border Patrol personnel as part of the Border Transition Team.
Consequently, many Iraqis did not take the smuggling issue seriously. “They all call themselves traders,” said Maj. Jonathan Larsen, who oversees border patrol operations. “It’s since we came along that we call them ‘smugglers.’ ”
Changing attitudes — too well
Among the tactics the U.S. military has taken to overcome entrenched attitudes about smuggling, particularly among the Iraqi Border Patrol, has been to allow border guards to take and sell a percentage of the contraband they confiscate from smugglers. This, soldiers say, helps focus their attention on the task.
“They don’t do this for God and country,” said Lt. Matthew McKee, who has patrolled the border with his 3rd Platoon.
The tactic has been very successful. In fact, it’s been a little too motivating in some cases.
Within the last several months, Iraqi Border Patrol guards “confiscated” a Land Rover that belonged to a western diplomatic team that had exited the vehicle to examine a portion of the border. The team left the keys in the ignition and were some 30 yards off when border patrol agents drove off with the vehicle. It was later recovered after Tiger Squadron soldiers examined the vehicle and found the victims’ passports inside.
In another case, border patrol officers seized about 100 sheep from some smugglers and then sold the sheep back to the same smugglers, who were captured again as they tried to cross into Syria.
The financial stakes for smugglers are high. A sheep that sells for $75 in Iraq will fetch twice as much in Syria, and smuggled herds can number up to 1,000. As illegal border crossings become more difficult to execute, smugglers are growing increasingly desperate and are carrying weapons in growing numbers.
Not surprisingly, instances of gunfire between border patrol guards and smugglers are becoming more common. In at least one case, a gunbattle between smugglers and border guards accidentally drew fire from Syrian border guards, who apparently thought they were the targets.
Larsen said stopping gun-toting smugglers is a priority.
“The guys who are bold enough to shoot at us — we want to stop them,” he said.
Damascus, 8 Dec. (AKI) - Syrian sources have confirmed that the Iraqi government has decided to close the border between the two countries until further notice. They stressed that it is a "lasting" decision and clarified that the measure will apply to the entry points for those travelling from Syria to Iraq, and not from Iraq to Syria, suggesting that the Syrian government will not close its border to Iraqis.
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS -- BUSH'S DEMOCRACY CALL RINGS HOLLOW IN ARAB WORLD: A poll carried out by the Arab American Institute in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates found that the Arab world's opinion of the U.S. seems to have hardened over the past year, due primarily to opposition to the Iraq war and perceptions of U.S. treatment of Arabs and Muslims. AAI president James Zogby said, "Of the four percent in Egypt and nine percent in Saudi Arabia who said that 'President Bush's promotion of democracy and reform' was the most important factor determining their attitudes toward the U.S., over 80 percent said this effort worsened their view of the U.S."