Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crime in Syria - on the rise in face of economic downturn

Syria is well-known for its safety, and its citizens are quick to tell you that crime (even in Damascus) is relatively unknown. The occasional reports of assaults on women using public transportation probably belies a larger problem that goes unreported or gets downplayed by local authorities. But now it seems that crime is increasing in earnest in the country's northern industrial center: Aleppo. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has an article here that links the rise in violence to the economic downturn, particularly damaging in Aleppo where many industries have been shuttered because of the government's dismantling of trade protection in recent years. This has probably been exacerbated by the rise in consumerism brought on by the blossoming of the luxury goods market serving the country's upper class. The simultaneous decay in industrial production unique to the northern region and the rise in conspicuous consumption that has spread from Damascus will most likely continue to spark an increase in crime in a country that prides itself on personal safety.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Syrian Opposition: not a lot of political credibility

Want to know what an "implantable device for treating impotence by delivering a vasodilator agent to the erectile bodies of the penis" has to do with Syrian politics? Just visit: Watch out Khaddam and move over Ahmad Chalabi - this guys got real credentials . . . .

Lieberman: Syria is no peace partner

This comes as no surprise, but is certainly disappointing. It would be an interesting project to track the number of times peace deals/negotiations have been derailed by electoral cycles as compared to authoritarian overturn . . .

Syria no peace partner: Israel FM
Sat Apr 25, 8:20 am ET

BERLIN (AFP) – Syria's support of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups make it no partner for peace, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview published on Saturday.

"We need to look at the reality. Until today, Syria is hosting the headquarters of terror organisations such as Hamas and the (Islamic) Jihad," he told the Berliner Zeitung daily, referring to two radical Palestinian organisations.

"Syria supports Hezbollah and its arms trafficking into southern Lebanon. Syria supports Iran's nuclear programme. That is why I cannot see in Syria a real partner for any type of agreement," Lieberman said.

Syria and Israel engaged in indirect peace talks in May last year following an eight-year hiatus, but the talks were suspended after Israel launched a deadly offensive against the Gaza Strip in December.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said earlier this month that Syria was ready to resume the indirect talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-leaning government on the basis of a total pullout from the Golan Heights which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Lieberman raised a wave of international criticism when he last month announced that Israel would not continue the latest round of US-sponsored peace talks launched in 2007.

Monday, April 20, 2009

'UAE arrests suspect in Hariri probe'

Apr. 19, 2009
Associated Press

One of the suspects in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister has been arrested in Dubai, an Arab diplomat said.

Purported Syrian intelligence officer Mohammed Zuhair Siddiq was named a suspect by a UN commission investigating the 2005 assassination.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a truck bombing that many Lebanese believe was carried out by the country's long dominant neighbor Syria. Syria denies involvement.

Initially Siddiq was a witness who gave evidence to UN investigators. His information, however, was later discredited, and at the UN commission's recommendation, he was arrested in France in October 2005 as a suspect in the murder.

He disappeared from house arrest in France in March 2008, according to French authorities.

The United Arab Emirates' Foreign Ministry could not confirm he was living in the country and did not know if he was arrested.

The Arab diplomat said he was arrested Friday in Dubai and that Syria has requested his extradition. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Syrian media reports have said Siddiq is wanted there for allegedly giving false testimony implicating Syria in the assassination.

Only four other suspects in the killing are in custody. They are pro-Syria generals who led Lebanon's police, intelligence service and an elite army unit at the time of the assassination. They have not been formally charged.

An international tribunal in the Netherlands took up the case in February.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Condition of Syrian Workers in Lebanon

IRIN has a good piece on Syrian workers in Lebanon, although it doesn't point out anything that wasn't already common knowledge it does show that thawing relations in the upper echelons of government doesn't necessarily trickle down to the population. Although there are probably more Syrian workers in Lebanon than Asian workers (of which there are many who work as domestic help) I don't know of any organizations that focus on Syrian labor rights, although there are quite a few working on the conditions of Asian workers who are often abused and held hostage by their Lebanese employers.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Syrian NSF issues statement on Break with Brotherhood

"The Council discussed the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood to cease their opposition activities to the repressive regime and their subsequent withdrawal from the NSF, and stressed the continuation of the NSF on its path and the strength in its composition of various national groups that represent all segments of the Syrian people, including the Islamic trend which belongs to the Syrian people and is not representative in the monopoly of one faction or another. The NSF is committed to the implementation of its project for change and retirement or withdrawal or fatigue or disability or repentance of this or that party will not stop its progress. The current state of the Syrian people under the oppressive regime is a clear and obvious signs as to the where Syria is heading in the regional and international political equations, and Bashar al-Asads' misleading terms and slogans begging for better relations with Israel and America on the basis of mutual interests in "comprehensive peace" can not fool everyone!

The Council stressed the NSF's objectives and commitment to its national goals, and vowed not to stray away from its main national battle with the tyranny of the regime and refused to be involved in side battles that will only waste energy and create divisions and confusion among the ranks. The battle of the NSF with despotism is not a temporary slogan as much as a goal and a final effort that will need all national forces of the Syrian people to unite for freedom, security, and stability."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Syrian Overseas Opposition Further Divided

The overseas Syrian opposition has never been very credible, for the usual reasons (out of touch with everyday Syrian politics; the Chalabi-factor; no basis for legitimacy, etc.) But now it has been weakened even further. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, which has never been very influential inside Syria after its followers were massacred in Hama in 1982 by the late President, has broken ranks with exiled (secularist) VP Khaddam, whose opposition to Bashar's presidency made him a liability in the early post-succession period. It seems that Syria's continued status as a "resistance" state really has paid off, since the MB is now standing behind the regime in its opposition to the Israeli incursion in Gaza and its support for MB co-religionists Hamas. Josh Landis has links and analysis here.

Josh Landis on Syria for the Arab Reform Bulletin

Syria: The Nexus of Economy, Diplomacy, and Reform

Joshua Landis April, 2009

The winds of change coming out of Washington have rekindled talk of liberalization and reform in Damascus. The Obama administration’s abandonment of a regime change approach to Syria has emboldened officials in Damascus to speak out about economic vulnerabilities—and the impact of U.S. sanctions—with refreshing candor. Long delayed economic reforms, particularly the launching of Damascus’s stock exchange, have been pushed through. President Assad has also promised to put political liberalization back on his agenda because he no longer believes Western powers seek to destabilize Syria.
Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, who coordinates economic planning in Syria, broke with the government’s party line on the economy in a recent interview with Reuters. Rather than repeating bromides about how Syria’s economy would not be affected by the world downturn, he warned Syrians that they would indeed face tough times. He explained that “Syria’s foreign trade makes up 70 per cent of GDP and this means that the country’s dependence on external factors is very large.” Mohammed al-Hussein, Syria’s finance minister, took Dardari’s warnings one step further, saying that 2009 would be a “difficult” year. The country’s banks were secure, but the industrial, transport and tourism sectors would suffer, he predicted.

Projections of an economic downturn are loaded with political significance in Syria. During the Bush administration, Syrian officials kept up a brave front in order to counter thinking in Washington that economic pressures would enable Israel and the United States to drive a better bargain on the Golan. U.S. sanctions were unimportant and ineffective, Syrian officials scoffed. Abdullah Dardari began to promise in 2005 that by 2010 he would have Syria’s economy purring along at 7 percent growth, the magic rate at which most economists believe Syria will begin to dry up its growing pool of unemployed laborers and youth. Damascus could afford to wait out Washington without abandoning its precious regional assets or “cards” that, if played wisely, it believed would win back the Golan and allow Syria to project its influence in the larger Middle Eastern arena.

So when Dardari admitted that Syria would fall far short of 7 percent growth, foreign analysts took note. More importantly, Dardari as much as confessed that U.S. sanctions were taking a toll on Syria. In a shot across the bow of Syria’s foreign ministry, he demanded that “the U.S. should lift its economic sanctions on Syria before relations improve between the two sides.” “The lifting of sanctions will likely have a positive effect on increased foreign investment,” he explained and would “remove a psychological barrier” to companies that now hesitate to put money in Syria. Only $700 million in foreign direct investment came to Syria last year; 2009 is likely to see even less.

According to Dardari, Syria’s infrastructure must undergo massive improvements on the order of $50 billion over the next ten years in order to grease the wheels of commerce and keep its main industries (textiles, cotton spinning, plastics, cement and canning) from being done in by cheap imports. Syria’s manufacturing sector has been battling on a number of fronts for the past few years, well before the current global crisis. For decades, it avoided competition from imports thanks to a program called “national protection.” High tariffs on imports gave local producers a false sense of security as they sold inferior products at high prices. But recent economic reforms have opened Syria’s doors to a wide array of new imports; tariffs between Arab states have been eradicated altogether, forcing Syrian manufacturers to compete with inexpensive imports for the first time.

Among notable recent developments was the launching of Syria’s stock exchange, which opened on March 10 after years of delays. Six companies were listed but only one traded a total of 15 shares on the first day. Volume was disappointing throughout the first weeks because fewer than 100 accounts have been registered with the five approved financial brokers. More importantly, cumbersome restrictions have been placed on the exchange to prevent “speculation” and promote “investment.” Securities cannot be sold on the same day of purchase and a 2 percent daily price movement limit has been imposed on stocks in an overzealous attempt to protect investors. These are some of the kinks that must be worked out, but Syrians were enthusiastic about having a working bourse after fifty years of socialism.

President Bashar al-Assad assured Syrians in March that the pace of reform would pick up now that Syria is “less affected by difficult international circumstances.” What is more, he suggested that reforms would not only be economic, but also political. When asked to elaborate, Assad responded: “For example by expanding political participation, creating another chamber in addition to the parliament, such as a freely elected senate with a legislative role to give more space to the opposition, by further liberalizing the political media and the Internet to promote dialogue, and finally by enacting a law regulating political parties. But all that will come about gradually, at our own pace.” Most Syrians may not hold their breath for political change, but they are gratified by the new climate of engagement with the United States, hoping that it will have important economic repercussions and perhaps bring some relaxation of the political atmosphere.

Joshua Landis is co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies and assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Gates Proposes Cuts in Big-Budget Defense Items

I hope this is an example of a perfect storm: global economic crisis + US bogged down in assymetric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan = common sense in defense priorities. My guess is that the big contractors will start screaming about job-loss (even though it's a well-documented reality that maintaining one defense job costs much more than a non-defense job of equal pay). These huge contractors get vast sums of government money for R&D and use government facilities free-of-charge. If companies did this in other industries they would be nationalized (and the argument that this would make them less efficient is ridiculous, since they already complete everything late and over-budget anyway). I hope Congress finally stands up to these huge defense interests (even though these companies were smart enough to place production of defense components in nearly each of their districts so as to make cutting projects nearly impossible). Can't believe I'm rooting for a Bush-appointee, but I'll say it, "Go Gates!"

You can read the WSJ story here.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Tunrout in Egypt's General Strike: Apathetic or Afraid?

Analysts disagree as to whether the protest's dismal turnout was due to apathy (of which Americans are probably the most guilty, since unlike in the Egyptian case mass protests in the US could bring about some response other than police massacres) or fears of reprisals. AFP is reporting small demonstrations and a few arrests, but nothing substantial.

Iran's reformist presidential candidate?

I would be interested to know if Mousavi's comment on returning to the principles of the revolution included the adjective Islamic? If he characterizes the principles of the revolution as Islamic then he's playing to the Council of Guardians who could probably just have him tarred and feathered if they decided his beard was too short. On the other hand, if he just said "principles of the revolution" this means something entirely different, since most of the principles of the revolutionaries (feminists, leftists and intellectuals) had little to do with Islam.

The Daily Star has an article here on Mousavi, which seems to suggest that he is playing to religious sentiments. The Middle East Report devoted its most recent issue to looking back at the revolution, and confirms the strong participation of decidedly non-religious elements. One can only hope it's these principles on which Mousavi is waxing nostalgic . . . .

Obama replaces war games with diplomacy: what a novel idea

POMED's wire service reports:

"On Thursday (4/2), H.Con.Res.94, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), a bill which would encourage the negotiation of an "Incidents at Sea Agreement" between the United States and Iran, was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The bill calls for negotiations on not interfering with ship formations, maintaining safe distances, not permitting simulated attacks, as well as other measures. Such an agreement would mark formal engagement between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and decrease the likelihood of an accidental military incident between the two in the Persian Gulf."

Agreements like this should exist between all countries, which would have prevented the incident between Iran and the UK last year. If military ships are going to be operating very near the territorial waters of a country with which you don't have good relations some sort of legal framework for acceptable behavior always helps to avoid possible hostilities.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I hope this song doesn't launch a generation of portly rappers from Dubai releasing records called "Bedouin Bling" . . . .

NPR's Marketplace has the story here:

Rapper feels 'Arab Money' isn't funny

Iraqi expat and hip-hop artist Yassin Alsalman used to be a big fan of Busta Rhymes. That was until the rap star released a controversial song called "Arab Money." Sean Cole reports.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why do Arab leaders feel compelled to use stupid casual sex analogies to questions that would clearly be better answered using standard prose? Thankfully they replaced Shara with Mouallem before anyone was able to get a tape recorder in his immediate vicinity.

"Farouk al-Shara, the Vice-President of Syria, was, as Foreign Minister, his nation’s chief negotiator at Shepherdstown. When he was asked whether Syria’s relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue was resolved, he said, “Do you think a man only goes to bed with a woman he deeply loves?” Shara laughed, and added, “That’s my answer to your question about Iran.”

Syria Making Serious Efforts at Peace with Israel

The excerpts from Assad's exchange with Hersh offer yet more evidence that the regime is trying to engage seriously with Israeli peace and contribute productively to issues in the region. Assad has become famous for his ability to speak the language of Western ideals (which is why grouping together Assad and Ahmadinijad is like comparing Chavez to Kim Jong Il - just because Assad and Chavez don't worship at the altar of American imperialism doesn't make them raving lunatics. Ahmadinijad and Kim Jong Il on the other hand are fairly scary characters). So far Netanyahu's rhetoric is not very promising and neither is Lieberman's, but when responding to criticism Obama made about Syria in the run up to the Presidential election Assad said, “We do not bet on speeches during the campaign.” Hopefully that goes for Israeli campaigns too . . .