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SYRIA - US Pressures On Damascus.

The US has been applying various types of pressures on Syria since American forces led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003. UN Resolution 1559 was one of them and had followed a bi-partisan resolution against Syrian control over Lebanon issued by the US Congress. The US is also applying pressures on Damascus so that Syria stops backing the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and join in American-led efforts to stabilise the country.

US Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice on Jan. 18 warned the Syrian government that it faced new sanctions and "long-term bad relations" with the US because of its suspected interference in Iraq and ties to "terrorism". She was referring to both Iraqi Baathists based in Syria and pursuing the anti-US insurgency together with Salafi Islamist militants in Iraq's Sunni Triangle who include Sunni volunteers from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries.

The Salafis are an extremely fanatic branch of Sunni Islam. Their terrorism is now being spread from Iraq to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and could soon move into Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries (see news4bbGCCsalafisJan24-05 in this week's APS Diplomat Package).

Rice told the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee's confirmation hearing: "I think that it is fair to say that the Syrian government is behaving in a way [that] could unfortunately lead to long-term bad relations with the US. It is incumbent on Syria to respond finally to the entreaties of the US". She said the Syrian Accountability Act gave the US "some tools" to pressure Syria, adding: "We will have to mobilize them because Syria should not be, but has thus far been, a not-constructive force".

President Bush was later reported to be reviewing options, including freezing the assets of high-ranking Syrian government officials. He is also considering restrictions that would isolate Syria's banks and prohibit US financial institutions from dealing with them.

The Israel Factor: Bush's administration has been under the influence of neo-conservatives (neo-cons), mostly Jewish activists in support of Israel's Likud policies and of Sharon's position on peace with the Arabs. Sharon has turned down several Syrian calls for peace talks over the Golan Heights to be resumed. When Bush in late 2004 was pressed by the American media to comment on Syria's calls for talks, the US president said Bashar Al-Assad's Baathist regime was "too weak" and that Syria had to wait until the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has advanced towards agreement.

In Sharon's view, it is no longer acceptable for Israel to negotiate peace with undemocratic Arab regimes. Such regimes, he once said, "can easily renege of their commitments and tear down treaties". He said it was better for Israel to wait until Syria becomes a true democracy.

In recent weeks, the Israeli government has called on Russia to halt a reported arms deal with Syria which it said could put advanced missiles into the hands of terrorists. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the Russian missiles could strengthen Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrillas.

After a meeting with visiting Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy envoy, Shalom said: "In recent months we have raised our concerns about possible Russian arms sales to Syria. Syria is a country known to support and sponsor terrorism. It constantly transfers weapons to Hizbollah. Selling advanced weapons to them runs counter to international interests".

(Media reports in Russia and Israel have said the sales to Syria would include portable Igla-18 surface-to-air missiles and Iskander surface-to-surface missile systems with a range that would cover most of Israel. Sergei Ivanov, Russia's defence minister, on Jan. 12 said during a visit to Washington that Russia was not conducting any talks with Syria on deliveries of the Iskander, although he did not comment on sales of Igla-18s. Richard Boucher, of the US State Department, commenting on the reports on Jan. 12, said: "The US policy on this is very clear. We are against the sale of weaponry to Syria, against the sale of lethal military equipment to Syria, which is a state sponsor of terrorism".

(The Israeli military was reported to be concerned that Syria's possible transfer of the shoulder-launched Igla missiles to Hizbollah would threaten Israeli aircraft near the Lebanese border and at Ben Gurion international airport. However, Israel Radio on Jan. 13 quoted a security source as saying the army already operated under the assumption that Hizbollah possessed such weapons. President Assad was due to visit Russia on Jan. 24-28).

During summit talks in late March 2000, held in Geneva with Bashar's father Hafez Al-Assad, then Israeli Premier Ehud Barak - of the Labour Party - accepted in principle an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981. Talks broke off as Assad insisted that Israel withdraw from a narrow strip on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, which Israel says it will never vacate. The area is a grassy plateau overlooking north-eastern Israel and has important water resources and the sea provides Israel with a third of its water requirements.

With President Bill Clinton overseeing the talks, Assad said he used to swim in that part of the sea and he intended to swim there again. He was surprised as Clinton suddenly shook Assad's hand and said he regretted the talks had to end that way. Assad died in June 2000 and since then the talks between Syria and Israel have been suspended.

The Lebanese 'Poison' Hits Damascus: Things took a new turn in 2004 with the appointment of Mehdi Dakhlallah - a Baathist journalist both afraid of and impressed by Lebanon's democracy which he calls "a necessary poison" - as minister of information. At first, more foreign periodicals were allowed in Syria, rising in number from 180 to 397. Dakhlallah experimented with new ideas, an exercise which was lacking in his two predecessors - the diplomats Adnan Umran (2000-2003) and Ahmad Al Hassan (2003-2004).

Dakhlallah had served as editor-in-chief of the state daily Al-Baath. His CV raised eyebrows as he studied politics in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and served as bureau chief for Abdullah Al-Ahmar, one of the old guard of the Syrian Baath Party, for over 20 years. This meant he had been indoctrinated with Baathist rhetoric and the ideological reasons for the Assad dictatorship. He proved otherwise, however, when in mid-2004 he published an article in the online daily bulletin about much needed party reforms.

While some speculated that Dakhlallah would be sacked for his defiance, the article paid off with the reform-minded Assad, who brought him in as minister. One of his first tasks was to get ministers to speak frankly and regularly to journalists. He had reporters wait outside cabinet headquarters to meet each minister as he or she left the meeting, holding them accountable for what had been achieved, or not achieved, in the cabinet meeting.

When a car bomb went off in Damascus on Dec. 14, 2004 targeting a Palestinian Hamas leader, Dakhlallah ran the news immediately on Syrian TV, before it was broadcast on CNN or Al-Jazeera. Minister Kan'an also rushed to the scene and gave his comments on the incident to reporters; again, a swift and unprecedented reaction.

When in December 1996 a bomb went off on a bus in Damascus, the state was mute in its media reaction. Then came the trial of Kurdish dissidents who had vandalised government property in Damascus in March 2004. Dakhlallah had the trial broadcast on Syrian TV, covered by local reporters. Another noted reform came in November 2004, when five minutes of programming was cut from Maraya, a satirical comedy on Syrian TV, performed by the comedian Yasser Al Azma. The episode showed a Syrian citizen at the Speaker's Corner in a Syrian "Hyde Park", talking about the corruption, uselessness and chaos in the Syrian media.

Azma heavily attacked the three state-owned daily newspapers, claiming they were "silly". While running on air, the episode apparently upset some senior officials in government, who ordered that the show be stopped. This aroused much speculation, and shed doubt on Dakhlallah's credibility as a reformer. A few days later, the entire episode was shown, with no censorship, on Syrian TV. Apparently, Dakhlallah got his way.

Syria remains full of contradictions. The three major Arabic newspapers which were once banned in the country - the Beirut daily An-Nahar, the Paris weekly Al-Watan Al Arabi, and the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi - are still banned. Yet, their websites are accessible all over Syria. The journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, arrested in 2002 for "publishing inaccurate information" on the then anticipated US-led invasion of Iraq was released in 2003. He is free to write, yet still awaits verdict of his trial.

In the internet age, many political websites are still banned by the authorities, including those of the US-backed opposition leader Fareed Al-Ghadri and that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ghadri's Arabic website is banned, yet his English one can be viewed. Also banned is the bulletin by Ayman Abdel Nour, a Baathist, which was established in 2003 to promote dialogue among Syrians. It was censored by the authorities after publishing articles criticising members of the Baathist old guard, but Abdel Nour is allowed to administer it, and send it off by email to subscribers from Damascus.

Books previously banned in Syria can also be bought freely today, most notably the memoirs of Khalid Al-Azm, Syria's former prime minister who ruled, on-and-off, from the early 1940s until the Baath Party toppled and exiled him in 1963. His three volumes are full of scorn for the socialists and the officers, yet they can be accessed in Damascus, having been banned from the mid-1960s to 2004.

In November 2004, Hakam Al-Baba, a journalist, wrote an article about the security system in Syria. He claimed that during an event hosted by the BBC in Damascus, he had been offered a copy of Al-Baath, but refused to take it. He claims he was accused, by Dakhlallah (the then editor) of throwing the newspaper to the ground. Shortly afterwards, he was summoned to a security bureau and questioned for his actions. The article, which Baba wanted to publish in An-Nahar, was approved and run in the Syrian daily Tishreen. No article can be printed in Syria without the approval of the minister, and Dakhlallah graced it with his okay, even though he was criticised directly in it.

The red lines are blurred. But fear of being arrested for writing articles critical of the government is eroding. Those who have presided over the media for the past four decades were afraid to take bold decisions. Instead of risking their jobs, media officials simply shunned opinions different to their own, and turned a blind eye to world events, fearing that publicising them would contradict with what the government wanted to hear. In 2000, Bashar Al-Assad declared that he would accept "the opinion of the other".

From 1963 onwards, Syrians have had to cope with getting their news from the three tightly controlled dailies Al-Baath, Tishreen, and Al-Thawra. Syrian TV is also very selective in its coverage. For example, the 9/11 events were not broadcast on Syrian TV. The war against Afghanistan was not covered, since it coincided with the commemoration of the October War of 1973. Syrian TV showed a ceremony celebrating the war's victories, while the world watched Al-Jazeera, CNN, and other channels covering the war against Afghanistan directly from the battlefield.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 24, 2005
Words:1890
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