Monday, March 21, 2005

Syria expects support at Arab summit

Regional leaders gather in Algiers amid Mideast uncertainty. The following report compiled by Lebanon's Daily Star staff Tuesday, March 22, 2005:

Syria expects Arab leaders meeting in Algiers to urge Washington to hold talks with Syrian leaders and to offer formal support against "American pressures" and sanctions, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Monday. Following an announcement that Syrian President Bashar Assad would attend the Algiers meet, Moallem said in an interview that he expects the Arab League summit opening Tuesday to endorse a draft resolution backing his country. Arab diplomats, he said, were circulating the draft ahead of the meeting.

The draft "expresses the solidarity of Arab countries with Syria in the face of American pressures as well as their rejection of the so-called Syria Accountability Act," Moallem said, referring to U.S. sanctions imposed on Syria last year.

It "also calls on the United States to engage in a constructive dialogue with Syria," he added.

Arab leaders began gathering in the Algerian capital Monday on the eve of the two-day summit, which is also expected to endorse a resolution to revive a three-year-old initiative for peace with Israel.

The summit will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the 22-member Arab League and comes at a time of continued violence, political tensions and uncertainty in the Middle East.

The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has entered its third year as the first elected parliament in 50 years struggles to form a postwar government for the violence-riddled country.

The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is on a fragile track forward after the landmark summit last month between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during which they agreed on a truce.

Sudan has been put on notice by the UN to end the deadly civil war in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.

Relations between Iraq and its pro-Western neighbor Jordan are in crisis as both governments withdrew their envoys on Sunday following a wave of protests over the alleged involvement of a Jordanian in a deadly suicide bombing.

Globally the Arab countries are pressed by the West, and their own populations, to step up a commitment made last year to engage in a series of political, economic and social reform.

And Syria is facing huge international pressure to cease its domination over neighboring Lebanon and complete a troop withdrawal before legislative elections due there in May.

Backing from the Arab League would be a boost for Syria in the face of the mounting international pressure.

The U.S. economic sanctions were imposed because of Syria's alleged support of the insurgency in Iraq and of terrorism - both charges Syria denies.

Pressure for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has grown since the February 14 assassination of Lebanese former Premier Rafik Hariri in a massive bombing and subsequent anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon.

Syria has denied any involvement in Hariri's murder but has pulled troops and intelligence agents back to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley and to Syria.

Moallem said neither a Syrian troop withdrawal nor UN Resolution 1559, which called for a pullout, are on the agenda for the Arab summit.

"This is a bilateral matter that has been agreed on" between Lebanon and Syria, he said.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud will not attend the summit, citing the political turmoil at home.

He is one of several Arab leaders who decided to skip the summit, including Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose country has proposed the revival of the peace initiative with Israel.

Earlier this month the king told Israeli television that Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would relaunch the plan to ensure that it was better received by Israelis.

The last Saudi-inspired initiative was rejected by Israel when it was first put on the table at the Beirut summit in 2002.

Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki said that "Jordan presented a document aiming at reactivating, promoting and marketing the Arab initiative for peace, by submitting a precise and concise form."

"This document was examined by the delegates who introduced a few additions in a way to please everybody and this is what was adopted," he said.

The three-point draft offers Israel the chance to normalize ties with the Arab countries in exchange for a total pullout from land it conquered in 1967 and later annexed.

It also insists that an independent Palestinian state, a solution to Palestinian refugees and their right to return are among key Arab demands.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was the first leader to arrive in Algiers Monday, pitching a tent to receive guests outside a five-star hotel just outside the Algerian capital, followed in the afternoon by outgoing Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar.

The presidents of Sudan and Mauritania, Omar Bashir and Maaouiya Ould Taya, as well as Abbas were among those who also arrived Monday. - Agencies

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Syria to redeploy Lebanon troops

Syria is under unprecedented pressure to withdraw, says the BBC in a report March 5, 2005. Here is a copy:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has announced the phased redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon.

Addressing Syria's parliament, Mr Assad said troops would withdraw to the eastern Bekaa Valley and then to the Syrian border.

The US said Mr Assad's pledge was "not enough" and called for a full pull-out.

Syria has been under intense pressure to withdraw from Lebanon since the February car bomb death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Lebanon's main opposition leader, Walid Jumblatt, called Mr Assad's announcement a "positive start" but demanded a clear timetable for the withdrawal.

In the Lebanese capital Beirut, members of the public jeered as they watched the broadcast in a central square.

In the nationally-televised speech, Mr Assad said: "We will not stay one day if there was Lebanese consensus on the departure of Syria.

"Our way is a gradual and organised withdrawal."

He said after the redeployment, Lebanon and Syria "will have fulfilled our obligations under the Taef accord and under [UN Security Council] Resolution 1559".

The 1989 Taef accord, which ended the Lebanese civil war, calls for a phased withdrawal of Syrian troops, beginning with redeployment to the Bekaa Valley, while the 2004 UN resolution calls for foreign forces to leave Lebanon.

Mr Assad said Syria was not against a full withdrawal, declaring: "The natural place for Syrian forces is Syrian land."

The president called Mr Hariri's killing "an atrocious crime... against the unity and stability of Lebanon as well as Syria", and vowed to bring the culprits to justice.

The US, however, said Mr Assad's announcement was "not enough".

"As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal - no half-hearted measures," the state department said in a statement.

But shortly after Mr Assad's speech, a senior Syrian minister said Syria would pull all its troops back into Syrian territory.

"The matter is very clear. When an army withdraws it withdraws to inside the country's border," Syrian Immigrant Affairs Minister Buthaina Shaaban told Lebanese television.

"The political decision has been taken for a complete withdrawal," she said, adding that it will take place "in the nearest possible time".

Mr Assad's hour-long speech was punctuated by cheers from legislators and thousands of flag-waving Syrians watching on giant television screens outside parliament.

In Beirut, about 1,000 Lebanese watching the speech in a central square shouted "Syria out!" and denounced the Syrian president.

The BBC's Kim Ghattas, who is in the Lebanese capital, says what has mostly upset people here is the tone used by Mr Assad.

She says opposition figures said there were many veiled threats in the speech and hints that Syria could still use violence to crush the anti-Syrian movement.

Exiled Lebanese Christian opposition figure Michel Aoun expressed scepticism about Mr Assad's intentions.

"I call on the Lebanese to be very careful about the wording and not to be happy over the general meaning," he told Al-Arabiya television in Paris.

Syria's arch foe, Israel, said Mr Assad's remarks "constituted an evasion" of the UN resolution.

Israeli Vice-Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Israel could open peace talks with Lebanon if Syria withdrew.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Aljazeera: U.S. intelligence sources say the Pentagon is in favour of air strikes on Syria

The following is a copy of editorial at 3/5/2005:

The American sponsored television station Al Hurra reported that the Pentagon is now convinced that air strikes on Syria have to be taken in order to overthrow the Assad regime, pullback Syrian troops from Lebanon and stop Damascus's alleged support of anti-occupation fighters in Iraq.

"Political action to deal with the problem of Syria's presence in Lebanon and its support of  (anti-occupation rebels)…in Iraq is no longer deemed effective," American intelligence sources are reported to have said, according to slain ex-Premier Hariri's Al Mustaqbal newspaper on Friday.

"Diplomacy as a means to deal with countries supporting (rebels) is over and out. The situation is now open to all eventualities as far as Syria is concerned."

"Resolving problems with Syria now requires changing the Syrian regime or mounting air attacks similar to those staged against Afghanistan and Sudan in August 1998 to wipe out terrorist centers once and for all," the U.S. intelligence sources were quoted as saying.

"The U.S. central command for Iraq and Afghanistan is closely following the situation in Lebanon and Syria and senior Pentagon officials are now convinced that hitting...targets in Syria is necessary," Al Hurra said.

Adding that "The elimination of Syrian-supported...groups is now deemed 'strategically vital' for stability in the Middle east, particularly Iraq, which is unattainable at present under the current Syrian regime."