Friday, September 09, 2005

No New York: the Mood in Damascus

Yesterday was a very disappointing day for many officials in Syria. Conversely, it was a day of some celebration for opponents of the regime. President al-Asad finally cancelled his trip to New York, as it had been rumored he would for some days. According to An-Nahar, US sources are saying that suspicion goes all the way to the top in Syria, meaning the President. For this reason he has cancelled the trip. Mehlis is due to arrive in Damascus on Monday.

I ran into Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari at the going-away party for my Brother-in-law (`Adil), Mohamed el-Kouhene, the head of the UN's World Food Program in Syria who is moving to Yemen to head the program there. He said he had read and liked my article on the President's trip to New York, which I posted two weeks ago. I mentioned that the New York Times had accepted a version of it for an Op-Ed article, but that it wouldn't run now that the trip was canceled. Buthaina Shaaban had set up numerous interviews for the President and first lady in the States, all of which are gone. It was the President's chance to break out of his box, put Syria on the front pages, and defend his country. No one can defend Syria if the President doesn't. Dardari threw his arms up above his head and shrugged, with a look of dismay mixed with a "what can I do." His gesture said it all. The government is in the depths of despond.

Everyone calculates his own interests in times of crisis, even as he considers the larger implications. Much of the country has its hopes pinned on Dardari's reform proposals. Several days ago in Dara'a, Dardari presented the outlines of his Five Year Initiative, speaking about how the gap between rich and poor had widened in Syria over the last decade. He explained how he hoped to address this problem even as he opened up the economy to global markets and foreign investment. BUT, and it was a big but, he said "for all this to work, we need economic growth." That growth looks further away than ever right now. In the back of everyone's mind, as Mehlis comes to Damascus, is the threat of additional economic sanctions from Europe or the UN. Syria has been stumbling from one crisis to another these past two years. Economic growth has fallen by half and there is no end in sight to troubles. More than ever people are worried about the fate of their country.

Not everyone is gloomy though. Here is a note I got from a friend:

I just had dinner with some 10 civil society people. It was fascinating... most of the conversation centered around the mehlis report and how excited they are to see regime figures marched in front of international tribunals. A couple gallons of araq later they were talking coupes, the Muslim Brotherhood, Rifaat al-Assad in boisterous voices and trading jokes. In vino veritas.
Now that President Bashar has bowed out of the New York meeting, pressure is mountain on Lebanon's president Lahoud to do the same.

General Aoun, after meeting with Cardinal Sfeir, told Lahoud not to go to the UN meeting, which means even Lebanon's Christians have abandoned him. As An-Nahar wrote today:
The White House has announced it has withdrawn an invitation to Lahoud to attend the traditional reception President Bush throws to the heads of delegations attending the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly every September.

"We believe the constitutional amendment that led to the 3-year extension of President Lahoud's term had been the result of excessive and illegitimate Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs," said U.S. National Security Council member Frederick Jones. "Meeting Lahoud will give a wrong impression about the U.S. policy towards Lebanon."
Diplomat discusses how to present international ruling in Hariri case

Ali Hamade wrote from Paris for An Nahar, an opposition Lebanese newspaper, that
ongoing research is being conducted by the main superpowers interested in
Lebanon on how to deal with the phase that will follow the presentation of the
final report from Detlev Mehlis.

Hamade said that “a European diplomat told An Nahar about the presence of several studies ... to draft the best method for finalizing the ruling ... as the Lebanese court might be subject to significant pressures.”

The diplomat told An Nahar that four methods have been drawn up by Paris, London, Washington, Berlin and the UN: To refer the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague; to establish an ad hoc court; to form a mixed court by Lebanese and international judges; or to relocate the Lebanese court in another country. But the diplomat said the "best choice mentioned until today" might be to combine the plans for moving the Lebanese court and constructing a mixed court. - An Nahar, Lebanon
Parliament is the natural place for electing presidential candidates
Emile Khoury wrote in An Nahar, an opposition Lebanese newspaper, on September 8, that according to a former Lebanese politician: “Walid Jumblatt's argument that the existing majority in Parliament can bring the next president is not applicable in the country.”

The former politician argues that Jumblatt’s belief is not applicable because of “the country’s conditions and its sensitive structure that necessitates taking the opinion of the minority.” The politician also said that since the Independence Day, “neither the Christians can force a president on the Muslims, nor can the Muslims force a president on the Christians, but a consensus was reached” between both sects.

But Khoury writes that the current Parliament should be the place where the next president is elected. He said: “Let every parliamentary bloc have its candidate as was the case in the past.” Khoury said: “It is possible now to apply such system after the end of the Syrian tutelage that was selecting the presidents, ministers and MPs.” - An Nahar, Lebanon
Mehlis close to finishing his investigation
Al Seyassah, a Kuwaiti independent newspaper, reported on September 7 that private sources confirmed that Detlev Mehlis, head of the UN probe team into the assassination of late Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, is now in full possession of the truth behind the assassination, and that the international investigation has reached a circle of guilt that is very close to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

According to the newspaper, the private sources added that Asaf Shawkat, the Syrian military intelligence chief, as well as the previous chief of the Syrian Internal Security Forces, Bahgat Suleiman, supervised the execution of the assassination operation, acting upon orders issued by a higher authority. The newspaper added that Lebanese former head of General Security, Jamil Al Sayyed, made important confessions in front of Mehlis and Lebanese magistrate Elias Eid in return of protection promises. The paper said Sayyed confessed that he granted ordinary Lebanese and diplomatic passports to about 170 Syrian intelligence members, who Asaf Shawkat commands. The newspaper added that the private sources said that Rami Makhlouf, the cousine of Syrian president Assad, is now staying in Paris - accompanied with his manager Nader Moahmad Al Qolei - in an attempt to open bank accounts and purchase real estate in order to guarantee his future, as he senses the demise of the current regime. - Al Seyassah, Kuwait

"Presidential response to Elaph tops Lebanese newspaper headlines"
Elaph, a pan-Arab newspaper, said on September 8, that it “received a phone call from the media office of the presidential palace asking about the source of the 'irrelevant information'” it published late Wednesday about President Emile Lahoud.

Elaph said on Wednesday night that “President Emile Lahoud was ready to leave his post in case he received assurances and clear guarantees that he would not be pursued in the case of the assassination of Premier Rafik Hariri.” The presidential media office issued a statement on Wednesday night - published by the National News Agency - denying the “false” information written by Elaph that was was published in many Arab and Lebanese newspapers, excluding Syrian news outlets. - Elaph, United Kingdom
Perpetrators rehearsed their crime before actual assassination
German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis and Lebanese Investigating Magistrate Elias Eid - the investigators of the Hariri assassination - want to investigate information they have received that suggests the perpetrators "rehearsed" their crime just a short time before the actual assassination, Al Watan reported on September 8. An empty truck was brought in to Ain el-Mreisse [the crime scene] while the crime was plotted in complete secrecy, the private, government-influenced newspaper reported.

Al Watan learned from sources that, during their rehearsal, mobile phone transmission and telecommunications networks were cut off, for unknown reasons. And when the transmission was cut off again during the blast on February 14, the two transmission cut-offs were linked to one another. The perpetrators used high-interference devices to interfere with the waves from the electronic devices installed in Hariri’s convoy. These devices are available at only a few international companies that are now being contacted in order to discover who purchased them.

Mehlis has been discreet about the evidence collected up until now, but people who have met with the German prosecutor say that Mehlis knows the identity of the suicide bomber, but refuses to disclose any further information for the safety of the investigation. He confirmed that the suicide bomber is not the Palestinian Ahmad Abu Adas, who turned up in a pre-recorded videotape after the assassination claiming responsibility in the name of the “Victory and Jihad Brigades in Al Sham Countries.” - Al Watan, Saudi Arabia
Talabani speaks out on Syrian media, Iraq's place in the "Arab nation"
On September 6, Al Iraqiyah TV carried an interview with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Asked about his "harsh" statements about Arab countries, Talbani criticized the "unresponsive" Arab stand, saying that their collective stand has neither been "brotherly" nor "friendly." Asked how he would describe Arab countries' "reservations" about the new Iraqi constitution, he said that such attitudes are tantamount to "interference in Iraq's internal affairs. They have no right to do so. Did we interfere in Sudan's affairs when it drafted its constitution and resolved the conflict in the south?"

He added: "If our Arab brothers have some reservations, they should relay them to us in a friendly manner and not through the media." He noted that the constitution is the "mission of the Iraqi people. The constitution has been drafted by a specialized committee. It will then be presented to the people in a referendum. If the people reject it, we will start over. If they accept it, it will be adopted, and the Arab brothers have to respect the will of the Iraqi people."

Talabani said that the Iraqi people are comprised of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldo-Assyrians, and other groups. "When we say that Iraq is part of the Islamic world, this means that it is part of the Arab world .... Iraq is not part of the Arab nation." He added: "Iraq has never been part of the Arab nation throughout its history, except when the Baathists assumed power."

Later in the interview, the president said: "I hear the Syrian media glorify the so-called resistance and ... not care about the victims among the Iraqi people. Hundreds of Iraqis get killed and you hear nothing, but if two criminal terrorists get killed, the Syrian media would say that two heroes of the Iraqi resistance got killed. This is a hostile stand on the part of the Syrian media against the Iraqi people. This is not a friendly gesture. How do we solve it? In an amicable manner because Syria, which we have problems with, offered valuable aid to the Iraqi opposition during and after the rule of Hafez Assad. ...

"Solving problems with friends is different from solving them with enemies. ... The solution is to sit with our brothers in Syria, relay our concerns to them, backed by evidence and documents, and ask them to support the democratic process in Iraq. We should ask them to oppose terrorism and help us conquer it rather than trade accusations and indulge in altercations." - Al Iraqiyah TV, Iraq
Saudi prisoners tortured in Syrian jails
In its September 9 issue, Al Watan reported how two young Saudi men were tortured in Syrian jails where they were being detained. The two Saudis, 23 and 24 years old, and whose names were not revealed, told the private government-influenced newspaper about how they were caught while trying to infiltrate into Iraq to perform jihad.

The 23-year-old Saudi, a civil servant in Saudi Arabia, who was arrested on the Syrian-Iraqi border, said he did not know the jihad in Iraq wasn’t an obligation - and that the fatwas against jihad in Iraq for non-Iraqis came out late. “The reasons for wanting to go to Iraq was because of the human rights violations in Abu Ghraib prison and the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (Hamas’s spiritual leader) by the Israelis,” he explained. On his way to Iraq, he stayed in a hotel in Damascus, where he contacted a Syrian smuggler to take him with other fighters to Iraq, and agreed on a certain price for the smuggler.

But the Saudi fighter said he didn’t agree with the Syrian on which area he was to be dropped off, expecting to arrive in Mosul or Fallujah. The next day, he was surprised when a group of people knocked on his hotel door and asked him to accompany them to a police station in Qameshli. He was interrogated about why he came to Syria, and was accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda, and with having designs on carrying out terrorist activities in Syria.

Al Watan also learned from the young Saudi that he was taken to prison for one year, where he was tortured by the prison guards daily for carrying out dawn prayers. His parents paid about 40 thousand Saudi Riyals ($11,000) to unidentified Syrians, after which he was finally released.

The 24-year-old Saudi who was also arrested said he wanted to go to Iraq after Baghdad fell. En route to Iraq, he went to Damascus and rented a hotel room for a week until he was asked to go with seven other Saudis in a bus to the borders with Iraq. “US forces bombed the location next to the border,” he said. So, they weren’t able to enter Iraq and returned to Damascus. Getting ready to go back to Saudi Arabia, he was arrested and apprehended by Syrian intelligence and accused of several charges, such as spying for a foreign country. He was also tortured daily by investigators and beaten with metal cables in a room filled with water. He spent about a year in the Syrian jail as well. - Al Watan, Saudi Arabia
Syrians kill one, arrest two gunmen in northeast

Al Jazeera reported on Septemer 8 that Syrian security forces killed an armed
man and arrested two others following a noon-hour clash in one of the suburbs of
Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria. The Syrian authorities said the gunmen belong
to Jund al-Sham Organization. - Al Jazeera, Qatar

"Mehlis' mission from a Syrian point of view"
Bahiya Mardini wrote on Elaph, a pan-Arab electronic newspaper, on September 8, that in Syria, “there are talks that the higher leadership was not aware about [Hariri’s] assassination, but was informed about it at a critical time, when it was impossible to stop it. Therefore, the crime should be placed in its natural status where criminals are punished and not the whole country.
Syrian, Lebanese sources quoted on progress of Hariri probe
Al Hayat reported on September 8 that informed sources said Syria has proposed that Detlev Mehlis meet Syrian witnesses "in a neutral Syrian location and not at the Foreign Ministry or the officials' offices." The same sources added that Mehlis would start his visit by meeting Riyad al-Dawudi, legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry, "to agree on the procedures for his meetings with the Syrian witnesses, which will probably involve more than one visit to Damascus, should Mehlis extend his mission."

The sources reiterated Damascus's desire "to cooperate fully with Mehlis" and the "importance of keeping the investigations non-politicized," after lauding "the professionalism and objectivity he demonstrated at his recent press conference."

Meanwhile, Al Hayat's sources stated that reserve Col. Muhammad Zuhayr Safi - rumored to have fled abroad in order to give Mehlis information that has helped the progress of the investigation - left Syria in May. But they denied that he was the director of the office of any of the security officials. The Syrian sources said: "He is a reserve officer who worked in Lebanon and was prosecuted on forgery charges and given a three-month sentence. He left for Marbella in May to join Rif'at al-Asad's [Syrian president's uncle who lives in exile] group before arriving in Paris and asking for political asylum." - Al Hayat, United Kingdom

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