News Round UP (January 18, 2006)
The big news today is that Syria freed some of the Damascus Spring prisoners: Riad Seif, Mamoun al Homsi, Fawaz Tello, Walid al-Bunni and Habib Isa were released today. Unforturnately, Dr Kamal al-Labwani and Professor Aref Dalilah remain incarcerated.
Here is BBC: Syria frees opposition activists
Syria has released two prominent opposition activists, who were jailed for five years in 2002, their lawyer has said.Readers have sent in short bios of the Damascus Spring prisoners (thanks)
Anwar al-Bunni said former independent MPs Riyad Sayf and Mamun al-Himsi had been released in Damascus.
The two were arrested in September 2001 after the authorities restricted open discussion by civil society groups.
Last June, opposition figures and intellectuals signed a letter urging the release of political prisoners.
They also called for the abolition of Syria's 42-year-old emergency law, which activists say permits arbitrary arrests and trials.
"The judiciary has decided to release them," Mr Bunni told the AFP news agency.
The two men were convicted in April 2002 for attempting to change the constitution by force and forming an illegal organization.
In November, Syria freed 190 political prisoners, including two prominent human rights activists, Mohammed Raadoun and Ali Abdullah.
Dr. Aref Dalilah:
He studied economics at the universities of Damascus and Aleppo and became the Dean of Economics at the University of Aleppo in 1998. He used his posts in academia to call for freedom of expression, liberal economics policies, and the strengthening of civic societies, which got him in trouble with the government. A renowned publisher of papers and thesis in economic sciences, he was harassed constantly by the Syrian intelligence for his views that he expressed openly.Riad Seif:
He was sentenced to a 10-year prison term on September 20, 2000, during Baschar al-Assad’s first 5 months of rule, after he called for the Alawite sect not to follow the Assad family in their sectarian policies. He believed that this will cause the demise of the Alawite people.
Dr. Dalilah is not known for any enmity towards the United States or its allies. His release will enhance the image of the US in Syria.
As a Member of the Parliament, he engaged fully in the “Spring of Damascus” by opening his home to intellectuals and academics for open democracy forums.Here is a short blurb I sent to Sami Moubayed about the releases:
He was imprisoned on September 6, 2001 for five years for his public criticism of the Makhlouf family (cousins to the Assads) and a book he wrote on corruption in the bidding of the Syrian cellular license, which incidentally was granted to the Makhloufs thus exposing corruption within the Assad family. It is believed that even when his prison term expires, he will not be released because of his charisma and popularity.
Mr. Seif is a Sunni Muslim, liberal in his views, and is not known to have been critical of the United States or its allies. His daughter has visited Germany in the hope that the German government can support his freedom, which they did but to no avail. His release will be a big blow for Ba’athism and will enhance the image of the US in Syria.
Everyone is trying to assess the importance of the release of the Damascus Spring prisoners. The optimists, who have been saying all along that Bashar al-Asad is a frustrated reformer, will take heart. They will point to the release as the first major sign that their president is finally ready to move ahead with domestic reform. What had stopped him in the past? The "old guard." With the ouster of ex-Vice President, Abdul Halim Khaddam, the consummate "old guard" infighter and nemesis of the President, the optimists argue, Bashar al-Asad can precede with his stalled reform program.Bashar al-Assad will make an important speech on Saturday, announcing internal reforms.
The pessimists will see this as a political stunt. Long ago they dismissed their president as a Baathist ideologue, who is incapable of real reform. Some even argue that the old guard was smarter than the new.
Syria has many reforms sitting on the shelf. We will have to see if they are dusted off and given real life in the political process. Hemmed in by an international investigation and facing recriminations from all sides, Syrians are desperate for some good news. Many Syrians will be willing to forgive Asad for his foreign policy blunders if he can grow the economy and convince them that he will not drive the country toward poverty.
The other big news is the Cheney visit to the region. He is trying to push a Saudi deal that will bring Syria to justice, without destabilizing the region. Here is a bit of an article:
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday held talks with Saudi, Egyptian and Lebanese leaders in a bid to resolve a stand-off between Syria and the United Nations over the assassination of a former Lebanese premier.Trish Schuh, the author of the recently quoted article that accused Farid Ghadry's Syria Reform Party of being linked to Abramoff, sends this note:
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two Arab heavyweights who are key U.S. allies in the region, are trying to defuse tension over the killing of ex-Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, and Saudi officials have talked of a Saudi mediation effort.
Analysts say Egypt and Saudi Arabia are worried that the crisis between Syria and the U.N. could escalate and detract attention from other problems destabilizing the region.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Britain's Financial Times in an interview published on Tuesday that the kingdom had made proposals for an agreement, but was waiting for a response from Beirut and Damascus.
Prince Saud said Saudi Arabia had urged Syria to co-operate with the UN probe “without reservations”.
Arab press reports have cited a seven-point plan, worked out by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that includes putting an end to media campaigns, ceasing provocative statements from politicians, exchanging diplomatic representation and co-ordinating foreign policy.
Dear Mr. Landis,Sami Moubayed has written an important article, "Iran and the art of crisis management," in which he argues for the appeasement of Ahmadinejad. The crux of his argument is that there is a system of checks and balances in the Iranian government, unlike the often invoked but "false" historical analogies with Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It is an intriguing argument. Moubayed believes Ahmadinejad's many Iranian enemies will depose him, if they are not silenced by American and Israeli saber rattling. It is a worthy argument, but one that, I fear, is already lost. Both Washington and Israel have their own elections to run and saber rattling serves too many important domestic purposes to be sheathed.
I am the original author of the comment/article on Syria that Mr. Farid Ghadry denied (concerning his relationship w/ Jack Abramoff).
As per Reform Party of Syria not using "shared office space" with Jack Abramoff: I personally checked with different sources- including the building maintenance crew on duty concerning the RPS, because RPS is not listed in the building's lobby directory- and none of the staff knew of it and the doorman claimed they'd never gotten mail under that name. Nor did the receptionist/secretary on duty know of the RPS. This is not how a legitimate organization usually runs.
I returned to Abramoff's office (2 or 3 times total) and finally insisted they look through Abramoff's client roster. Then the secretary on duty at "Middle Gate Ventures" found RPS listed in her files. She even gave me RPS's number to call- which accurately matched the number on the official RPS website.
I then requested to speak to a supervisor who could give an RPS statement on the "latest" in Lebanon. The supervisor declined, saying she didn’t know and that they were not authorized to speak to the press.
T_desco writes wrote in the comment section:
It turns out that Ibrahim Michel Jarjoura is indeed a new Hussam:The U.S. Treasury Department just ordered U.S. banks to block any assets found in the U.S. belonging to Assef Shawkat. Americans are also barred from doing business with him. The department alleged that Shawkat has played a role in furthering Syria’s “support for terrorism and interference in the sovereignty of Lebanon”. (Thanks Ehsani)
Another Witness Testifies with Perjury into Assassination of Hariri
The witness Ibrahim Michel Jarjoura said he was forced to offer a false and fabricated testimony against Syria at the international investigation committee into the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik al-Hariri because he was under threats and pressures to do so.
Jarjoura told Lebanese satellite NEW TV channel in an interview overnight that some Lebanese figures, particularly Deputy and Minister Marwan Hamada, forced him, in return to some promises, to retell the fabricated story to the international probe and the Lebanese Attorney Said Mirza as well as Bahiya Hariri, sister of the slain Hariri. SANA
Khaddam makes fresh accusations to Saudi-based newspaper Al Watan:
The former Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam said that some groups in Syria seized the money of the sons of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (Uday and Qusay) after the Syrian authorities returned them back to Iraq.Oxford Business Group just released this interesting article about the Arab Gas Pipeline:
Khaddam revealed that the sons of the former Iraqi president fled to Syria with their money and stayed there for one month until the Syrian authorities forced them to go back to Iraq without their money. Meanwhile, Khaddam denied the news, which claimed that he owns a fortune of about $2.1 billion, and accused the relatives of the Syrian president of corruption, specially Ramy Makhlouf, a close relative of the Syrian president who used to ask for 30 per cent from Gulf investors in return for any project in Syria.
Syria: Straight is the Gate
18 January 2006
Syria’s troubled relations with its western neighbour Lebanon have recently stood in contrast to its links with northern neighbour Turkey.
Events this month have driven home the point too, as a number of new link ups between Damascus and Ankara were announced. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, new steps are underway in an ambitious cross border energy project that could be set to bloom after the recent gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine.
Yet links between Damascus and Ankara have not all been on a positive note. While ordinarily encouraging cross border traffic, January has also seen Syria engaged in some frantic efforts to prevent one particular import from the north: bird flu.
By January 17, an outbreak of the virus in Turkey had killed four, with a fifth death suspected to have also been the result of the contagion. Some half million birds have so far been destroyed in Turkey’s efforts to contain and eliminate the virus, but despite this, the World Health Organisation and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation recommended neighbouring countries also take precautions.
Syria had already responded, testing some 18,000 birds along its 500-km northern frontier for the disease, while culling poultry and wild birds in towns within the same area. The Agriculture Ministry says that none of the tests proved positive.
The authorities also declared a state of emergency in the border region and in the northern cities of al-Qamishli and al-Hasaka. In the former, live poultry markets have been closed while municipal workers and health and agriculture ministry officials have handed out guidelines to all poultry sellers on how to prevent the spread of bird flu.
One great concern is migratory birds from Turkey, whose flight path brings them into Syria, may bring the deadly H5N1 strain of the disease with them.
On a more positive note, however, news of the bird flu measures came alongside news of a new road construction project that will likely greatly enhance trade between Turkey and Syria.
State news agency SANA reported on January 16 that 60 km of new highway would be built on the Turkish side of the border. The route will help trucks and other heavy vehicles crossing at the Kilis border town by creating a bypass around the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. The road is set to shave some 50 km off the distance currently travelled by Syrian truckers heading for the Turkish Mediterranean ports of Mersin and Iskenderun.
At the same time, this year also saw a further easing of restrictions during Eid on Turkish and Syrian family members – separated by the border – meeting to exchange gifts and greetings.
SANA reported thousands of Turks had crossed into the Syrian northern governorate of Idelb during the religious holiday, with the Turkish governor of neighbouring Antakya province holding a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart.
Yet one more cross border link that could in future be not just regionally significant, but globally so, has also been back in the news lately.
This time, it concerns energy, with the recent dispute between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas supplies causing many European countries to start a radical rethink of their energy strategies. In this reappraisal, alternative sources to Russian gas have been looked at once again – giving an added boost to plans for an ambitious Caspian/Middle Eastern-European pipeline, known as Nabucco.
This scheme aims to supply Europe with gas from a variety of origins. A series of sub pipelines would converge in Turkey, where the main artery would then flow across the Bosphorus into Europe, up through the Balkans and finally to a point just outside Vienna, where it would link into a variety of other European pipeline networks.
One of the original sub-pipelines – along with those from Iran and Caspian states such as Turkmenistan – may be the Arab Gas Pipeline. This finished its second phase mid-January, with a link from the Hussein power station in Aqaba, Jordan, to the city of Rehab near the Jordanian-Syrian border completed.
Test pumping has also started, the news agency ANI reported on January 14. Along the 393-km long pipeline, Egyptian gas will be supplied to a number of countries, including Jordan, Syria, Turkey and, via Nabucco, Europe.
The Arab Gas Pipeline can carry some 10bn cu metres of Egyptian gas per year, with this second phase alone costing some $300m.
In the third phase, the link will be continued across the frontier from Rehab to the Deir Ali power station in Syria, a further 342 km, and will then be routed to Rayan, near Homs, and from there to Turkey and onwards.
The third phase will be built by Russia’s Strointransgas, and is expected to cost around $400m.
Yet as far as the main artery, Nabucco, is concerned, no final decision has yet been taken on whether to take the scheme off the drawing board and actually start breaking ground.
“The formal decision to start building the pipeline has not been made yet,” a spokesman for OMV – the Austrian firm heavily involved in the project – said January 3. “You’ve got to check what the demand situation is before you make this decision. The joint venture is negotiating contracts with potential buyers right now.”
The Nabucco joint venture consists of OMV, Turkish company Botas, Hungarian fuels group MOL, Bulgaria’s Bulgargaz and Romania’s Transgaz.
The companies involved are currently trying to attract new partners for the project, which could cost around 5bn euros.
Spreading the risk further may therefore be a wise move, particularly given the political instability of the Caspian and Middle Eastern regions from which Nabucco draws its gas, with Iran a particular worry for European investors and governments.
Yet as far as the Arab gas link up is concerned, the future is already arriving, with Syria a key transit country. Such link ups are also good for Syrian-Turkish relations, which are themselves widely recognised in Damascus for their growing importance.
“Turkey is considered Syria’s gate to Europe, while Syria poses as Turkey’s gate to the Arab world,” Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah told SANA in Washington on January 15.
This gate, it seems, is now opening ever wider.