Saturday, September 18, 2004

United in fear: a week of high-level inter-Arab meetings - Mauritania is current chair of Arab Council of FMs

Arab states are no longer fighting amongst themselves, they are just taking separate roads. Dina Ezzat reports on a week of high-level inter-Arab meetings, courtesy

Here is a copy, in full, for future reference [and for publishing a post at a later date on Mauritania, the current chair of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers]

Unprecedentedly, the atmosphere at this week's meeting of Arab foreign ministers was non-confrontational. A notable departure from typical inter- Arab gatherings.

This time around there were no rows about the relations between the United States-imposed Iraqi government and its neighbours, or about the Palestinian attempts to pursue deals with Israel separately from Syria and Lebanon, or yet again about the military facilities that many of the Arab Gulf states have been generously providing for their American friends.

"This is really unusual. I have been attending Arab foreign ministers meetings for close to 20 years -- since the Cairo Arab League headquarters resumed operation in the early 1980s -- and I have never witnessed such a [none-contentious] meeting," said one Arab League official.

For this official and many Arab diplomats the pacific nature of this week's meeting of Arab foreign ministers, and of the meeting of Arab ministers of economy -- under the umbrella of the Arab Economic and Social Council -- which preceded it, should not be read as an indication of a new-found unity of purpose.

"Not at all. It is just that we have given up hoping to do anything, or for that matter to say anything," said one permanent representative to the Arab League. He elaborated that rather than attempt to bridge the deep chasms dividing them, the Arab states seem to have conceded that these are insurmountable.

The dividing line, he went on to explain, is delineated by the nature of relations with the US. "Some of us have more than strategic ties with the US while some others are still being viewed by the US as enemies. And at the end of the day we are all afraid of the US, either out of fear of military intervention and economic sanctions, or because of the military and security dependence that some Arab countries have on the US."

Such caving in to a regional Pax Americana is ominous, suggest a number of Arab diplomats, one described it as "disturbing and indicative of the disintegration of the Arab regional system".

The Arab foreign ministers meeting served as a venue for maintaining a semblance of agreement on the non- controversial issues.

The contentious issues, however, are being aired at sub-regional forums, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council (grouping Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman). Moreover, it appears that the Arab states are increasingly pursuing their strategic interests -- especially those related to overall regional security arrangements -- away from the umbrella of the Arab League.

On the eve of the Arab foreign ministers meeting Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Sobbah, speaking on behalf of the GCC, made an unprecedented call upon Syria to pull out its troops out of Lebanon.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Al-Moashar, whose country shares the GCC's close relationship with the US, took a similar line. In a statement he made before arriving in Cairo, he said Amman was expecting Syria to respond to the demands made by UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution calls on Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon.

For their part, neither the Syrian nor the Lebanese delegations asked for the Arab foreign ministers meeting to adopt a stance against this resolution.

The joint Syrian-Lebanese demand was for an Arab resolution that indicates support for both countries in the face of any potential aggression.

Syrian diplomats were "working very hard to structure a new relationship with the US on the basis of mutual cooperation on regional security matters in Iraq on one hand and Syria- Lebanon-Palestine, on the other" said one Arab diplomat. Damascus was not expecting Arab foreign ministers to take a stance against the harsh US anti- Syrian rhetoric.

Neither was Iraqi Foreign Minister Houchiar Zibari very insistent on having the Arab states meet his government's request for military, security and diplomatic support.

Implied criticism of the interim Iraqi government during the meeting failed to illicit a reaction from Zibari. At one point, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa remarked that the "the gates of hell have been opened in Iraq," pointedly looking towards Zibari. Visibly upset, the Iraqi foreign minister, nevertheless, did not respond.

Nor did he react much to statements made by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, during a joint press conference, in which he categorically denied that Cairo had any plans to send troops to Iraq. "Our forces [will not go to Iraq] to [shoot at] the Iraqi people, and we cannot accept our sons to be shot at in Iraq," said Abul- Gheit.

The Iraqi minister, however, seemed satisfied with the resolution adopted by Arab foreign ministers that calls for "a wider Arab presence" in Iraqi affairs.

Mauritania, the current chair of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers, refrained from bringing up its dispute with Libya over an alleged attempt by Tripoli to overthrow the Nouakchott regime and publicly shrugged off a standing Libyan request for the Arab League to look into these claims.

Similar nonchalance with regards to a collective Arab position was shown by Sudan, over the crisis in Darfur, as well as by both the Egyptians and Palestinians over developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front.

Instead, on the fringe of the pan-Arab meetings, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath held separate meetings with European, US and UN officials, including US Under Secretary of State William Burns and UN Envoy to the Middle East Terry Larsen. Some Arab foreign ministers were briefed on the outcome of these meetings.

"We have said so much. The situation is very clear to everybody and we have so many plans, but what we need [now] is to get out of the current prolonged phase of Arab inaction," Shaath said.

The Americans and the Europeans urged the Arab states to take political reform more seriously. But neither of the two meetings introduced any collective Arab plans aimed at pursuing political reform.

"It is very obvious that Arab countries are not in agreement either over political reform or the notion of the Greater Middle East, as propounded by the US. It is also very clear that they do not want to argue much about it amongst themselves," said one Arab diplomat who attended the discussion on the Greater Middle East.

The few resolutions adopted collectively in relation to regional security were confined to coordination on preparations for the 2005 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and on two conferences related to non-proliferation of small arms.

Prickly issues such as concerns over a possible US strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, threats of sanctions against Syria and Sudan, and the security implications of the expanding role of NATO in the region were not brought up.

Arab foreign ministers will start flying to New York for the General Assembly meeting as of early next week.

Additional reporting by Reem Nafie and Magda El-Ghitany. [Note photo appears in article: Clockwise from top left: Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara; Libyan and Lebanese foreign ministers Abdel-Rahman Shalgam and Jean Obeid; Iraq's Houchiar Zibari ; and his Sudanese counterpart Mostafa Othman Ismail]

Syria tested chemical arms on civilians in Sudan's Darfur?

A while back, in my main blog, I published a post reporting that chemicals may have been dropped by air in the Sudan. If I recall correctly, the post was about a reporters interview with a Sudanese civilian who claimed to have knowledge of bags of white powder appearing on the ground that proved poisonous. When I find the report, I will link it here.

Last week, a rush of news reports appeared online, emanating the German daily Die Welt that claimed Syria tested chemical weapons on civilians in Darfur in June and killed dozens of poeple. Here is an excerpt, courtesy Sudan Tribune:

BERLIN, Sept 14 (AFP) -- Syria tested chemical weapons on civilians in Sudan's troubled western Darfur region in June and killed dozens of people, the German daily Die Welt claimed in an advance release of its Wednesday edition.

The newspaper, citing unnamed western security sources, said that injuries apparently caused by chemical arms were found on the bodies of the victims.

It said that witnesses quoted by an Arabic news website called ILAF [] in an article on August 2 had said that several frozen bodies arrived suddenly at the "Al-Fashr Hospital" in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in June.

Die Welt said the sources had indicated that the weapons tests were undertaken following a military exercise between Syria and Sudan.

Syrian officers were reported to have met in May with Sudanese military leaders in a Khartoum suburb to discuss the possibility of improving cooperation between their armies.

According to Die Welt, the Syrians had suggested close cooperation on developing chemical weapons, and it was proposed that the arms be tested on the rebel SPLA, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, in the south.

But given that the rebels were involved in peace talks, the newspaper continued, the Sudanese government proposed testing the arms on people in Darfur.

Details of what were in the weapons were not disclosed.

The Sudanese government has been accused of arming and backing Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, which have rampaged through the western Darfur region for the past 19 months.

An estimated 50,000 people have been killed and 1.4 million more uprooted in a campaign against Darfur's black African population, which began in February 2003 when Khartoum and the Janjaweed cracked down on a rebel uprising.

The United States has accused Syria of trying to acquire materials and the know-how to develop chemical weapons and claims that Sudan has been seeking to improve its capability to produce them for many years.
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Syria chemical arms tested on civilians?

Here is a copy, in full, of a report by Aaron Klein at

Syria, which has long denied maintaining a chemical or biological weapons arsenal, reportedly tested chemical weapons on civilians in Sudan's troubled western Darfur region in June, killing dozens of people.

Injuries caused by chemical arms were found on the bodies of the victims, according to unnamed sources quoted by the German daily Die Welt newspaper and witnesses who talked with the Arab news ILAF last month.

Several frozen bodies arrived suddenly at the "Al-Fashr Hospital" in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in June, reported ILAF.

Die Welt said its sources had indicated the weapons tests were undertaken following a military exercise between Syria and Sudan after a meeting in May between Sudanese military leaders and Syrian officers in a Khartoum suburb to discuss the possibility of improving coordination between their armies.

After the Syrians reportedly suggested close cooperation on developing chemical weapons, it was proposed that the arms be tested on the rebel SPLA, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, in the south.

The Sudanese government then allegedly requested testing the chemicals on people in Darfur since they were involved in peace talks with the rebels.

As WorldNetDaily reported, the U.S. declared last week the rape, pillaging and slaughter of blacks in western Sudan by the Islamist Khartoum regime and its Arab militia allies is genocide, under the 1948 U.N. convention.

The reports are extremely damaging to Syria's Bashar Assad, who has been under international pressure after the recent passing of the Syrian Accountability Act in Congress, which accuses Damascus of supporting terror groups including Hezbollah, failing to stop anti-U.S. fighters from crossing into Iraq from Syria and maintaining 25,000 troops in Lebanon.

The White House also has accused Syria of having one of the most advanced chemical weapons programs in the Arab world, with stocks of the agents Sarin and VX.

Assad has drawn the ire of Israel as well for allowing the top leadership of Hamas to live openly in Damascus. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed Syria, which harbors the overall leader of Hamas, Khalid Meshel, for a recent suicide bombing that killed 16 people in a southern Israeli city, and several Israeli officials have said the Jewish state plans to send a strong message to Assad.

In a recent WorldNetDaily exclusive interview, Syria's Ambassador to the UN Fayssel Mekdad denied his country has chemical weapons. "These are mere allegations and they cannot be substantiated," he said.

Mekdad also denied allegations Syria is aiding the insurgency against American troops in Iraq by allowing terrorists to pass through the Syrian border.

"I mean, not a single proof was given to Syria that we have helped, aided or supported elements that are carrying out attacks, or even giving them information from the Syrian side. I would like to confirm 100 percent for this interview that Syria has done nothing at all, and not a single proof has been given to us, not a single one," said Mekdad.
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UPDATE: Sunday September 19, 2004:

Here is a copy of a post - from my main blog ME AND OPHELIA - dated Thursday, August 19, 2004:

Villagers in Sudan describe poisoning

On August 17, 2004, the Washington Times published a report by Levon Sevunts. Here is an excerpt:

SHEGEK KARO, Sudan — Inhabitants of this picturesque village in the Darfur region of western Sudan said the Sudanese air force sprayed them with a strange powder in an attack in May that killed two villagers and dozens of cattle.

Another bomb, dropped by a jet fighter on the same day, produced a poisonous smoke that injured about 50 villagers on the other side of the village, the villagers said.

A Sudanese air force Antonov plane dropped several rectangular plastic sacks containing a white, flourlike powder on a wadi — a dry riverbed — in the lower part of the village, they said.

"This is the first time I'm hearing about this," a spokeswoman for Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed said. She promised the embassy would look into the matter.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Israel escalates war of words with Syria: Israeli PM Sharon is said to be considering attacking Syria

For some months now, it is becoming apparent there is trouble brewing involving Syria. Today, after reading a September 2 report by Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank, entitled Israel escalates war of words with Syria, I have started up this blog for noting news reports concerning Syria. Other reports that help throw light on understanding what is going with on Syria are to be copied here in full for future reference.

Note, the report, copied here below, states: "Israeli PM Sharon is said to be considering attacking Syria":

Israel is threatening to launch a military attack against Syria, accusing Damascus of indirect responsibility for the latest Palestinian attack in Israel.

The latest threat came from Israel's deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim, who warned that Israel ought to consider carrying out military action against targets inside Syria.

"The rule is that anybody who deals with terror against Israel is a target," Boim said during an interview with the Israeli state-run radio on Thursday.

He further suggested that any military strike against Syria would be a "mere message to the Syrians" and wouldn't "cause a conflagration".

"I believe that it is possible to carry out these attacks by correct selection of targets, in the correct dosage, placing the red lines that must be placed, without thinking in terms of  massive conflagration, which certainly is not in our interests," he said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara said on Thursday that the "launching of premature Israeli threats against Syria lacks the least degrees of credibility or evidence".

Boim's remarks followed a plethora of statements by Israeli political and military officials, warning that Israel should or would attack Syria in reprisal for Tuesday's attack in Beir al-Saba.

Israel claims to be in the possession of "intelligence information" linking Syria to the Hamas cell that carried out the attack.

However, Palestinian resistance sources said Tuesday's attack, which killed and injured scores of Israelis, was in retaliation to Israel's killing of two prominent Palestinian resistance leaders earlier this year.

Syrian denials

However, observers in Israel and the Occupied Territories are reluctant to give Israel the benefit of the doubt in this regard because Israel has not apprehended the members of the cell.

Israel's main piece of "evidence" so far is the fact that Syria hosts an information office for Hamas and that some Hamas representatives visit Syria from time to time.

Syria, which is in a state of war with Israel and whose Golan Heights are still occupied by the Israeli army, doesn't hide its support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom from Israeli occupation.

The bus bombings were the first Hamas strike in Israel for months

However, the Syrians repeatedly denied Israeli and US allegations that Palestinian resistance operations against Israel were being masterminded and planned on Syrian territory.

Israel seems intent on using the issue of Syria's alleged culpability in Tuesday's bus bombing as a pretext to mobilise US and European pressure on Damascus.

Effecting this campaign, Israeli officials have been in contact with the Netherlands, which  assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union, in an effort to get the EU to condemn Syria.

Moreover, Israel and its powerful supporters in Washington, are reportedly planning to present "intelligence information" indicting Syria, which Israel hopes would push the Bush administration to further escalate pressure on Damascus.

The US is already working through the UN Security Council for a resolution denouncing Syria for interfering in Lebanese internal affairs and demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

Israeli strikes

Syria and Hamas have denied Israeli accusations that the Damascus-based Hamas office masterminded the bus-bombing attack in Beir al Saba.

On Wednesday, Hamas officials in the West Bank labeled the accusations a "cheap distraction".

Syria has also rejected the accusations, vowing to respond to any kind to any "Israeli adventure".

Israel carried out an air strike on an erstwhile training camp belonging to an expatriate Palestinian resistance group outside Damascus last year.

Faruq al-Sharaa says Israeli threats lack credibility

Syria, whose military inferiority vis-à-vis Israel has further worsened following the US occupation of Iraq, did not retaliate then, saying Syria would not be dragged into a military confrontation with Israel and would choose the right time and place for a response.

However, the Syrians have hinted that any Israeli attack on Syria this time will be addressed.

The most likely scenario of a Syrian response to a possible Israeli attack would be to let Hizb Allah or Hamas retaliate on Syria's behalf.

Hamas has already warned that the movement would target Israeli targets abroad if Israel targeted Hamas' foreign-based leaders, including the Damascus-based representatives.

Hamas said the bus-bombing attack in Beir al Saba was a long-delayed retaliation for the assassination by Israel earlier this year of Hamas's two top leaders, Shaikh Ahmad Yasin and his successor Abd al-Aziz al Rantisi.

Hamas officials have also cited the killing by Israel of hundreds of Palestinians, most of them innocent civilians, during the five months preceding the latest bombing in Southern Israel, when neither Hamas nor any other Palestinian resistance group carried out any human-bombing attack against Israel.

Israel military sources say they have captured dozens of would-be bombers in the past few months, but has not provided evidence to support such claims.
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Courtesy New York Times, September 13, 2004

On Sept. 13, 1993, at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands after signing an accord granting limited Palestinian autonomy.