Israel Resource Review 4th January, 2000

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Eye on Syria:
Timely Report on Developments
Vol. 1 No. 2
Prepared by Steve Rodan,
head of MENL, Middle East Newsline

Welcome to Eye on Syria, a timely report on developments in Syria as well as a review of pertinent articles in the Syrian official press as well as what is written about Syria. The service is meant to illuminate Westerners to one of the most closed societies in the world. The report is based on facts and analysis culled from numerous Syrian and Arab newspapers as well as diplomatic sources by correspondents in Jerusalem, London and Cairo.

First, a quick look at the Syrian media. Syrian newspapers, radio and television are all owned and controlled by the regime. Nothing appears in the media without the approval of authorities. Broadcasters are given text to read and have no room to improvise.

Syria has one radio station, television station and news service. They are leaden and dull but they faithfully reflect propaganda from Damascus. Slogans are repeated ad nauseum in a reflection of the highly ideological regime. We will spare subscribers of the rhetoric and, instead, give the main points of the media.

There are four Syrian dailies and they are remarkably similar. Al Baath is the newspaper of the ruling Baath Party. It focuses on so-called popular issues, largely the activities of the party around the country. Al Thawra is the ideological organ of the Syrian regime. Tishrin is the government daily. The Syrian Times is the English-language daily.

Quote of the week:

"Our concern for the Golan shouldn't make us oblivious of the fact that Palestine is the center of the Arab Israeli conflict. Our rights as Muslims and Arabs in Palestine are sacred and inalienable which no body can compromise."

-- Muslim Brotherhood in Syria announces its opposition to any peace agreement with Israel.

Today in Syria

  1. Assad said expected to last no more than year
  2. Syria launches crackdown on islamic militants
  3. U.S. urges lebanese not to ask for syrian withdrawal
  4. U.S., Syrian contacts to begin next month
  5. Assad, Barak plan to meet in Geneva
  6. Israel doesn't expect framework accord next month
  7. Israel, Syria to discuss early warning stations
  8. Syria rejects Barak proposal on accord
  9. Israeli spiritual leader wants to visit Syria
  10. Iraq, Syria plan to renew diplomatic relations

Assad Said Expected to Last No More Than Year

The health of Syrian President Hafez Assad is said to be increasingly deteriorating and he is not expected to function for more than another year, sources close to the regime said.

The sources, who have excellent contacts with leading members of the Syrian government, said Assad is suffering from a range of diseases that has increasingly limited his ability to function. This includes heart ailment and diabetes.

As a result, the 69-year-old president works no more than two hours a day. Often, the sources said, Assad does not do any work and decisions and discussions are delayed.

The sources said Assad's energies are directed toward ensuring that his son, Bashar, becomes the next president of Syria. It is this goal, they said, that drives him on. But the sources said the senior Assad continues to have difficulties in completing the process.

Bashar has not been approved for a leadership post in the Baath Party, the sources said, and family infighting has prolonged delays. The sources said should the president die soon, a fight over succession will erupt.

The 34-year-old Bashar has been delayed in plans to travel to Teheran to discuss the Israeli-Syrian peace talks, the sources said. They said Bashar was to have explained to leaders in Teheran the reason for the negotiations and the prospect of a peace treaty.

One source of delay, the sources said, is that the president took time to draft a letter for Iranian leaders regarding the talks between Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shaara and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The letter is to be delivered before the next round of negotiations on Jan. 3.

A-Shaara on Dec. 30 left for Cairo to brief Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the forthcoming talks. Arab diplomatic sources said Egypt will press Syria to coordinate with the Palestinians.

Sources said Iran is angry over the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks and has quietly threatened to sever relations with Damascus if a peace treaty is signed. The sources said Iran has stressed to Syria that it does not object to an agreement for the return of the Golan Heights but opposes normalization of ties with Israel.

Iran has also warned Syria not to harm the Lebanese Shi'ite Hizbullah militia. The sources said Iran has stressed that Hizbullah has a huge constituency and is the leader of the resistance against Israel's troop presence in south Lebanon.

Syria Launches Crackdown on Islamic Militants

Syria has launched a crackdown on Islamic militants in the wake of its criticism of President Hafez Assad's decision to resume negotiations with Israel.

Diplomatic sources said Syrian authorities have arrested scores of members of the Moslem Brotherhood over the last week. They said the Brotherhood issued a leaflet that criticized the talks meant to lead to a peace treaty.

The Brotherhood called the prospect of a peace treaty a "capitulation a sell-out of Arab and Muslim rights in Palestine."

"It must be remembered that the Palestinian question with all its histor ical, geographic, political, and human dimensions, is the essence of the conflict in the Middle East," the communique, faxed to news agencies, said. "Our concern for the Golan shouldn't make us oblivious of the fact that Palestine is the center of the Arab Israeli conflict. Our rights as Muslims and Arabs in Palestine are sacred and inalienable which no body can compromise."

The statement was faxed by Syrian Islamic representatives based in London in what was regarded as the first unauthorized criticism of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Earlier, the head of the Syrian Writers Association criticized the resumption of talks in what was regarded as a move authorized by Assad.

The Brotherhood said any agreement concluded between Syria and Israel would be "illegitimate since it would go against the collective will of the Syrian people."

The communique said the Golan Heights was "no more than a step towards the liberation of Palestine."

The leaflet came in the wake of the killing of a leading Brotherhood member. Sheik Mohammed Amin Yakan, 62, was assassinated on Dec. 16 as he was driven to Tarhin village near Aleppo. Syrian sources said the sheik was killed by gunmen who worked for a family that sought to release land allocated for construction of a government center.

The Brotherhood placed doubts on Syrian claims that Yakan was killed in a criminal dispute. Yakan was involved in a mediation effort between Syria and the Brotherhood in 1997.

U.S. Urges Lebanese Not to Ask for Syrian Withdrawal

The United States is said to have appealed to prominent Lebanese politicians and opinion-makers to allow Syrian troops to remain in Lebanon.

Lebanese sources said U.S. diplomats have urged the Lebanese not to urge a Syrian withdrawal from their country after Israel pulls its troops out from the south. The sources said a similar message was voiced by U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, David Satterfield.

"Several Christian personalities have received clear messages from U.S. diplomats 'warning' them not to ask for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon after the withdrawal of the Israeli army from south Lebanon," the Beirut-based Al Mustaqbal daily reported on Dec. 22. "U.S. ambassador David Satterfield diplomatically 'warned' these personalities not to count on an Israeli request for a Syrian withdrawal."

Syrian President Hafez Assad phoned Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and discussed the next round of Syrian negotiations with Israel on Jan. 3. The telephone call came amid Lebanese concerns that Beirut would end up with the short end of the stick in any negotiations with Israel.

Arab diplomatic sources said the United States has quietly assured Syria that it would not press for a withdrawal of its 35,000 troops from Lebanon after an Israeli pullback. The sources said the Clinton administration and Israel have concluded that Syrian troops are required to maintain stability in both Damascus and Beirut.

About one million Syrians work in Lebanon, a work force that the sources said maintains the Syrian economy. All Lebanese government contracts must ensure Syrian participation, the sources said.

The sources said that U.S. diplomats believe that the Muslims and Shi'ites in Lebanon -- who make up the majority -- will not resist continued Syrian occupation of their country. The Christians, however, might voice protest and urge the U.S. Congress to link Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon to any future U.S. aid.

U.S., Syrian Contacts to Begin Next Month

Efforts to improve relations between Syria and the United States are expected to begin next month, Arab diplomatic sources said.

The sources said the effort will focus on ways to remove Syria from the State Department list of terrorist nations. The status prevents Syria from obtaining most types of civilian and all military aid.

The Clinton administration, the sources said, would seek to change the image of Syria in the eyes of Congress and U.S. public opinion. The efforts, the diplomatic sources said, would begin during the next round of talks, scheduled in Virginia on Jan. 3. They said U.S. and Syrian officials, headed by Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shaara, would hold talks between negotiations with Israel.

The negotiations would begin with another public ceremony, the sources said. This time, they said, U.S. officials will press A-Shaara to shake hands with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in front of television cameras.

After the negotiations, the sources said, the first of three U.S. congressional delegations would arrive in Syria. The delegations would explore the prospect of approving any White House proposal for economic aid to Damascus after an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty.

Senior U.S. officials have stressed that Damascus will require billions of dollars in Western aid after a peace treaty. But they envision a U.S. effort to focus on obtaining Arab and European aid rather than having Washington shoulder the commitment alone.

On Dec. 29, EU envoy Miguel Moratinos told Syrian leaders in Damascus that Brussels would be active in Middle East peace negotiations. He said the EU would also offer help to achieve a peace treaty and ensure its implementation.

Assad, Barak Plan to Meet in Geneva

The United States is trying to arrange a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad at the end of January.

Arab diplomatic sources and newspapers said U.S. President Clinton has sent messages to Assad and Barak and has obtained what they termed a promising response from Assad. Barak has often expressed his wish to meet Assad.

The U.S. plan, the sources said, is for Clinton to meet the two Middle East leaders in Geneva in mid- or late-January after the next round of Israeli-Syrian negotiations scheduled on Jan. 3 in Virginia. The sources said Assad has linked any meeting with Assad to the success of the talks.

On Dec. 31, the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi daily reported that Assad has agreed in principle to meet Barak if progress is reported in the forthcoming negotiations in Virginia.

The sources said Syria will demand an Israeli commitment for a withdrawal from the entire Golan Heights. Damascus has rejected an Israeli proposal for a "core agreement" that would contain a vague formula for Israeli withdrawal. The sources said Syria is insisting that the first issue on the agenda is an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Israeli sources acknowledged that Assad has been approached by the United States and the European Union regarding a meeting with Barak. Assad has told foreign guests that such a meeting could take place when an agreement is reached between Israel and Syria.

The negotiations will be led by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shaara and Israel's Barak. On Dec. 30, A-Shaara held talks with Egyptian leaders on Israeli-Syrian peace talks as well as coordination with the Palestinians. The foreign minister relayed a message from Assad to Mubarak.

"[Barak's] seriousness must be put to the test so we can be assured that the Israelis desire peace as we do," A-Shaara said after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "In the new round, we will put Barak's seriousness to the test, because he showed seriousness in the first round. This seriousness must be put to the test so we can be assured that the Israelis desire peace as we do. The settlements are illegal, whether they are built on the Golan, in the West Bank or any other area of the occupied Arab territories.

Meanwhile, Assad's son might be invited by Clinton, Arab diplomatic source said.

Israel Doesn't Expect Framework Accord Next Month

Israel has reduced expectations stemming from next week's negotiations with Syria.

Israeli officials said they do not expect both countries to agree on a "core agreement" that would guide negotiations toward a peace settlement. They cited Syrian opposition to such an accord.

The talks will begin on Jan. 3 in a secluded site in Virginia and continue for at least 12 days, the officials said. They said the negotiations will continue through the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, when Arab diplomacy comes to a halt.

The officials said Israel will be pressed to issue a commitment for withdrawal from the entire Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967 border. They said Israel would seek to delay such a commitment.

For its part, Israel will demand Syrian goodwill gestures. The gestures, the officials said, do not include a cessation of violence in south Lebanon, which has little chance of being obtained in formal negotiations.

Instead, the officials said, Israel will ask for the return of the remains of executed Israeli spy Eli Cohen and information on the whereabouts of Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon.

Israel, Syria to Discuss Early Warning Stations

In negotiations next month, Israel and Syria have agreed to discuss three demilitarized zones, early-warning stations and the deployment of U.S. troops as part of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The establishment of early-warning stations is slated to be part of a draft of a declaration of principles to be negotiated between the two countries in the next round of talks, scheduled for Jan. 3 in Virginia. The draft will include all the elements of a peace treaty, including Golan withdrawal, normalization, counterterrorism and security arrangements.

The Jordanian daily Al Aswaq said the document was initiated by European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos. The draft was then modified by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and assistant secretary Martin Indyk to become a basis for resuming the negotiations.

"Early warning stations should be erected to prevent surprise attacks," the newspaper quoted the elements of the draft document as saying. "The two sides discuss the idea of having United Nations forces with an American nucleus to supervise the agreement and ensure its implementation."

Syrian newspapers have called on Israel to be "serious" in the forthcoming round of talks. The call came as the ruling Baath Party has launched meetings around the country to discuss the prospects of a peace treaty with Israel.

The aim, Syrian sources, is to convene the first national convention of the Baath Party since 1985. At that meeting, Syrian President Hafez Assad is expected to push for his son Bashar to be given a leading role in the party and leadership.

The draft, the Jordanian newspaper said on Dec. 21, does not specifically call for full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Instead, it calls for Israel to withdraw from the area "according to the Madrid conference's terms of references as an implementation of United Nations resolutions 242 and 338.

Those two UN resolutions as well as UN resolution 425 should be implemented regarding the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. No timetable is mentioned.

The draft stipulated that security arrangements are to be made on the grounds of reciprocated equality with the objective of strengthening stability and ensuring security interests for the two sides. "The security arrangements are in compliance with the principles of sovereignty and regional unity," the newspaper said, "but under the condition that the Lebanese dimension will be taken into account. These security arrangements are also to take into consideration the nature of the region, the two sides' positions in the military and political arenas, and the consequences of redeployment on military capabilities."

Israel has demanded a demilitarization of the entire Golan as well as an area that extends close to Damascus. Syria has six divisions from the area of Golan to Damascus, a distance of 60 kilometers.

In contrast, Syria has demanded that any arrangements be symmetrical and not infringe on that country's sovereignty.

The draft document calls for three zones in an effort to minimize a surprise military attack. The zone closest to the Israeli border would be free of all weapons. The second zone would have restrictions on weapons and troops. The third zone would have allow the deployment of unspecified defensive weapons.

The draft is vague on the issue of water. Israel has refused to cede rights to the Sea of Galilee, the northeastern portion of which is claimed by Syria. The two countries are asked to deal with the issues in accordance

with international law "taking into account Syria's rights and Israel's requirements of waters."

Regarding future relations between Israel and Syria, the draft calls "peaceful relations between the two sides includes diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with the objective of opening the way for promoting peace. Practical measures will be taken to build confidence in the political, economic and social areas, and the two sides will back and participate in the framework of regional cooperation and the multilateral tracks."

The two countries are also being asked to pledge not to harbor groups that threaten the other side.

Syria Rejects Barak Proposal on Accord

Syria has rejected an Israeli proposal to reach a core agreement during the next round of negotiations, an Arab newspaper has reported.

The London-based Al Hayat daily on Dec. 27 quoted Syrian sources as saying that the proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for a framework accord that would include all elements of a peace treaty between Israel and Syria would be a substitute for the "substantive bases" of issues concluded by both countries in previous negotiations.

The sources did not explain. But the reference appeared to be that of Syrian insistence that Israel had agreed to a withdrawal from the entire Golan Heights.

Barak has urged Syria and the United States to conclude a "core agreement" with Damascus that would be more specific than a declaration of principles and serve as a guide for a peace treaty. But the prime minister has stressed that he wants to first discuss security arrangements and water before he commits to any withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Syrian newspapers, meanwhile, renewed their call for an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. The call referred to the the line that existed before the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war in which Israel captured the Golan Heights.

Earlier, Israeli sources said Barak would propose a withdrawal to the 1923 line agreed by France and Britain. That line is farther east than that of the 1967 boundary demanded by Syria.

Israeli Spiritual Leader Wants to Visit Syria

A leading Israeli rabbi and patron of the third largest party in the country wants to visit Damascus and meet with Syrian officials before he issues a ruling of whether to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Diplomatic sources said contacts have been held through Arab and European officials to arrange the visit of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to Damascus. The rabbi is the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, with 17 seats in the Knesset.

The sources said the rabbi's support for a Golan withdrawal has been sought by the European Union. EU peace envoy Miguel Moratinos has met with the rabbi and his aides in attempt to win support for a Golan Heights withdrawal in any referendum held in Israel.

The London-based Al Hayat daily said Syrian leaders are considering extending an invitation to the rabbi. The newspaper quoted sources in Damascus as saying the the invitation could come from Syria's mufti, Sheik Ahmed Kiftaro or from the the chairman of Syria's tiny Jewish community.

The newspaper said Knesset Abdul Wahab Darhoushe has relayed the rabbi's desire to visit Syria to leaders in Damascus. The rabbi is regarded as spiritual leader to Jews of North African descent, which make up the majority of Jews in Israel.

So far, Damascus has refused to welcome any Israeli Jewish figure. Several Arab parliamentarians have become regular visitors to Syria.

Iraq, Syria Plan to Renew Diplomatic Relations

After 19 years of tension, Iraq and Syria plan to resume diplomatic relations.

Iraqi newspapers and officials said both countries have reached agreement on the resumption of full ties. They said the first step would be to open interest sections.

Syrian officials acknowledged that both countries are interested in resuming ties but said little progress has been reported in bilateral negotiations.

In 1980, Iraq severed ties with Syria after Damascus sided with Iran during its war with Baghdad. A decade later, Syria joined the U.S.-led coalition against Baghdad that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

"An agreement has been recently reached to open two interest sections in each others' country," Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahaf said.

So far, Algeria represents the interests of both Iraq and Syria.

Neither Sahaf nor other Iraqi officials would offer a timetable for the resumption of full diplomatic relations. So far, the two countries have quietly renewed trade. Since 1996, Syria sold $150 million of food and medicine to Iraq and Syrian companies have opened branches in Baghdad.

In 1998, Sahaf visited Syria and met Syrian President Hafez Assad.

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A Daughter's Plea
by Sara Ben Shoshan,
whose mother was murdered with 3 other women who were slain at a bus stop in Jerusalem in March, 1991.

A few months ago, I opened the daily Yediot Aharonot Israeli newspaper and I was stunned to read a headline article written by Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, both of whom are known as credible journalists, in which they wrote that in any permanent agreement with the Palestinian Authority, killers with blood on their hands will be freed by Barak. Next to their article were pictures of six Palestinian killers that the Palestinian Authority demands their release.

One of the pictures that appears there is our killer, the killer of my mother, Mustafa Abu Jallala.

At the moment that I saw that picture I relived the murder.

My mother, a small and simple woman stood at the bus stop waiting for a bus that would take her home from another day of work and suddenly, a monstrous man of six foot appeared out of nowhere flailing a long knife. He killed her and all of our family. A full life was taken in one moment, the life of a simple family was changed from one extreme to another and will never be the same from what it was before the murder. Whenever I feel the pain of the murder, and the sorrow for the loss of my mother, I imagine him, the murderer. Getting off a bus with the other freed murderers, with great satisfaction and with victory on his face, holding up the V sign with his hand, saying, I'm victorious, I murdered, I was freed and now I can even do it again and become a leader of my people.

And I ask you, I ask my people, and I ask our Prime Minister, how are we supposed to feel when the value of justice slips from our hands? How are we as a family to feel when our minimal human rights were taken by a murderer, who instead of rotting in prison to his last day, might in fact be freed very soon. We hear every day about human rights that we all agree are a very important principle in a just society, but I ask where exactly is the right of a murder victim, of the victim of a person who was precious to us who is now buried deep in the ground. Where are the victim's rights when the murderer is allowed to go free?

Where are the rights of us as a bereaved family, whose life after the murder has anyway become difficult? Where are our rights when the murderer of our mother is freed?

Ever since the article in Yediot appeared, we have witnessed 150 prisoners freed, amongst them people with the blood of the wounded on their hands, (as if they did not intend to kill) and also amongst them, those who murdered Arabs who cooperated with Israel. (As if there is any difference between human blood).

Last week we were witness to the freeing of another 26 prisoners, amongst them was the murderer of a taxi driver, Yehezkel Mizrachi. My heart and the heart of all my family go out to his grieving family. We are slowly coming to the realization that this is about to happen to us, and this must never happen.

I feel a moral obligation in memory of my mother to carry out this fight, My mother did not have the opportunity to defend herself . As I think of my mother, I cannot sit idly and not fight this basic injustice.

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