Saturday, July 31, 2004

Women Terrorized in Damascus

Syrian Terrorists in Iraq
David Patel recently scolded me for giving Syria a pass on terrorism in Iraq. He wrote:

I spent 8 months in Iraq after the war. One of my best friends was picked up by the British in a raid and sent to Camp Bucca, near Um Qasr. He told me there were dozens of Syrians being held there and only a few Arabs from other countries (although he thinks most of the Syrians were leftovers from the war).

To amend my erring ways, it is worth reporting that recently the Iraqi Police Arrested 270 Militants, Interior Minister al-Naqib Says:

"Police have recently arrested 270 terrorists, mostly nationals of neighboring countries, such as Syria," al-Naqib said. "I wonder whose interest is it to target national Iraqi elements and civilians?"

On July 12, Iraqi Human Rights Minister Bakhtiyar Amin said his government had 99 foreign fighters in detention, including 26 Syrians, 14 Saudis, 14 Iranians, 12 Egyptians, nine Sudanese, five Palestinians, five Yemenis, five Jordanians, five Tunisians, one Lebanese, one Moroccan, one Turk and one Afghan.

U.S. officials had long blamed foreign fighters of playing a role in Iraq's 15-month-old insurgency, but recently the military has said the fighters are mainly loyalists of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The US head of Central Command, General John Abizaid, also recently complained:

The Syrians have allowed, and I don't say they do this with government approval, but there is too much infiltration of money and foreign fighters that takes place across the Syrian border.
terrorism of women - ammended last (August 2, 2004)
In Syria, there also seems to be a rise in the terrorism of women. An in-law and friend, who have just returned from summer visits to Damascus, spoke of a general fear among women in Syria about wearing short sleeve shirts and otherwise liberal clothing in Damascus. Evidently a women was stabbed by an Islamist recently as she exited a fancy sports club in Damascus wearing a comfy sports suit. The word is that the man called her a Kafra before running off. I also heard reports that in souq Hamidia, a number of women wearing cool clothing have been stuck with needles. Such stories (whether true or not) express the general anxiety about the rising level of Islamic radicalism in Syria and spill over from Iraq violence and Islamism.

Correction (Aug. 1): My sister-in-law just wrote me to say none of the above stories are true. She wrote:

The news about conservatives, which my aunt and your other friends told you about, is not true. My aunt asked me and I told her it was all not true and I told her the real story. It was only one psycho-man who hurt some girls with a knife and he was already caught when our aunt was here. He targeted all girls. He did not distinguish between veiled and unveiled girls. He is not normal and the story is over since then. It was clear that X was influenced by the conservativism of her mother in law, who always tries to scare her and get her to dress modestly (The mother-in-law is a Sunni muhajiba). As a result, X always wore jackets with long sleeves, wherever she went. The country is completely secure and there is no security problem at all.

My experiment with yellow journalism has turned out to be scare mongering (lesson learned); all the same, the fact that a number of Syrians believed the stories to be true gives some indication of the anxieties that are always just below the surface of calm Syrian life.

Addition Aug. 2: John Measor just e-mailed this update on the souq al-Hamidia stabings. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Exeter, just returned from summer study in Damascus and traveling in Iraq for field work. He writes:
The purpose of my email is to back up what you posted today on your blog. Indeed there was a lone crazy who was stabbing women, apparently with little pattern as to why. A friend who runs a shop in the souk right behind the Ummayad mosque was queried by friends in the police when the first attack occurred (I happened to be sitting there sipping tea and was merely happy they weren't there to query him about me ;-)).

There were two other attacks of which I was aware prior to the perpetrator being caught. The regulars in the souk were concerned (as is to be expected) and it was an interesting lesson as the community rallied in support of the local authorities (usually they are grudgingly accepted at best and more often complained about as you must know well).

That being put to rest, I must say that I'd amplify the comment about the presence of Iraqis in Syria generally and Damascus in particular. They were everywhere!!! Shopping, buying (homes and business') and relaxing away from the insanity that has overtaken their own country.

Iraqis in Syria
The spill over from Iraq has also brought many good things to Syria. This summer, an estimated 250,000 Iraqis have flocked to Syria, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein making it easier for them to travel and do business. Increased Iraqi business and tourism should help make up for some of the 1 billion USD Syria lost in 2003 due to the cut off of Iraqi oil and trade.

Evidently Syria has been a prime destination for Iraqis looking for a vacation from insecurity or just looking for fun and money. The Syrian policy of issuing visas on demand to any Arab visitor and its history of personal and political ties with its neighbor have aided this flow. A recent article by Zeina Karam reports:

Cars with Iraqi license plates are abundant in downtown Damascus. Hotels are full, and real estate agents say prices have gone up sharply with the increasing number of Iraqi visitors. Armed with a passport, hard to get under Hussein, scores of Iraqis are also heading to Syria to apply for visas at foreign embassies in Damascus.

"Work is good," said Yaarob al-Qaisi, a 42-year-old Iraqi industrialist who was counting his money in a Tartous hotel full of businessmen.

The collapse of Hussein's regime has meant an end to tight border controls, and entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity for business. For almost a year, al-Qaisi has been importing trucks and other construction vehicles from Germany to Iraq through Tartous. "I know dozens of other Iraqis doing the same," he said.

"The Syrian people are very hospitable and show solidarity with the Iraqi people. We feel comfortable in Syria," said Faisal Elias, 27, who exports wood and Syrian-made soft drinks to Baghdad. Elias has Syrian business partners and recently bought a house in a Damascus suburb. He and his wife, 24-year-old Raghad, plan to divide their time between Baghdad and Damascus. "This suits me. I feel free in Syria," Raghad Elias said.

Iraqis opposed to Hussein have long found a haven in Syria. During an official visit to Syria last week, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi thanked Syria for supporting and welcoming Iraqis "when we were struggling against the dictatorship in Iraq."

More than half a million Iraqis fled to Syria ahead of the US-led war that began in March 2003. Jassem, the Iraqi businessman, said he came with his wife to "escape
the hot weather and security situation in Iraq." "Syrians are generous people. I don't feel like a stranger here," he said.

EU and Syria nearer to signing the EU-Mediterranean partnership agreement
Nicholas Blanford has written a useful article detailing the contentious history of Syria's talks with the EU. It begins:

The European Union has "somewhat diluted" a clause calling on Syria to revoke its alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program which has been blocking the signing of a joint political and economic pact, a European diplomat said Tuesday. But the diplomat added that the long-awaited EU-Mediterranean partnership agreement with Syria would not be signed without the clause.
The significance of this trade agreement on the reform process in Syria could be great.

"Syria will benefit in the short-term politically - by countering US pressure and showing that Syria is not isolated - and economically, because it will instigate the process of economic reform," said Nabil Sukkar, an economist and managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment. He said that Syria had made a "strategic decision" to conclude the agreement with the EU and had proven more amenable in the negotiations over the contentious subject of agricultural trade than all other Mediterranean partners.

"Signing the agreement will give reformists the strength to say that we must carry out economic reforms to honor our international obligations," Sukkar said. "It will be disastrous for Syria to sign the agreement but not go ahead with economic reforms."


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