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 day:

“The issue of the Lebanese resistance is a matter for Lebanon to discuss.” –Syrian Foreign Minister A-Shaara rejects calls for Syria to crack down on Hizbullah military campaign against Israel.

Today in Syria

  1. Assad Losing Control of Family Feud
  2. Bashar Assad Expected to be Given High Post
  3. Syria Links Lebanese Talks to Israeli Withdrawal
  4. Syria Admits Killing of Major Islamic Leader
  5. Iraq, Syria Agree to Reopen Pipeline
  6. Iran: We Support return of Golan
  7. Syria Allows Criticism of Peace Talks

Assad Losing Control of Family Feud

Syrian President Hafez Assad, growing increasingly weak, is spending much of his time as peacemaker to quell the feud within his family over the grooming of his elder son Bashar as heir.

Intelligence sources in Washington, Tel Aviv and Paris said the difficulties faced by Assad in grooming his son as successor is pushing the president to win the Golan Heights in a treaty with Israel. They said this is the main reason Assad decided to resume talks with Israel last week.

“Until now,” an authoritative U.S. defense source said, “Assad felt that even if Syria wouldn’t get the Golan back, he could still ensure that Bashar takes over. Now, he’s no longer sure.”

Sources said the most intense opposition to Bashar, a congenial British-trained opthamologist, appears to be within the family and leading members of Assad’s Alawite sect.

“Clearly, something is wrong in the family, particularly among the children,” a source with excellent ties to the Syrian leadership said. “Assad has no choice but to intervene and make peace.”

The sources said Assad has failed to win his son a seat in the Baath Party inner leadership, a prerequisite for any president. They said a party congress to consider the issue is scheduled for spring of 2000.

“Why the delay?” a source asked. “Assad can easily move up the date. What appears to be the case is that there is too much division in the family and this has affected the other Alawites.”

The sources said the effects of the shooting of Assad’s son-in-law Assaf Chawkat, head of military intelligence, in November by Assad’s son, Maher, another military commander, continues to ripple through the ruling family. They said the tension is being compounded by Chawkat’s wife and Assad’s daughter, Bushra.

“We are dealing with a very vocal and dynamic woman, which is extremely rare among the Alawaites,” a source said. “She has very strong views about the succession issue.”

Chawkat is said to support the 34-year-old Bashar as successor to the president. The younger Maher is said to oppose the choice.

Lebanese sources following the succession issue said Bashar lacks determination and is “at best half-hearted” in his drive to become president. They said he made a poor impression during his visit to Paris last month during which he met French President Jacques Chirac.

The sources said Assad’s health is increasingly deteriorating. The president works at most 2-3 hours a day and his mind often wanders at meetings.

They said Assad no longer travels and contributes little in meetings. They said in meetings with U.S. and other Western officials, Assad will say several words and his translator will go on for several minutes.

“It is obvious that the translator is told what to say in advance,” a source said.

The problem is compounded, the sources said, by Assad’s lack of capable aides. They said Assad returned the ailing Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shaara to his post because he couldn’t find anybody else trustworthy to deal with Israeli and U.S. officials.

A-Shaara, a member of the Sunni Muslim majority, rather than Bashar, the sources said, is being employed to lobby the ruling Baath Party to support negotiations with Israel. European Union peace envoy Miguel Moratinos told Israeli officials last week that A-Shaara spent five hours trying to persuade the Baath Party’s central committee to support the negotiations.

A-Shaara was said to have been slated for retirement. But Arab diplomatic sources on Dec. 21 said Assad plans to name A-Shaara as Syria’s new prime minister. The London-based A-Sharq Al Awsat said the move could be announced on Monday and is meant to raise his title to that of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak by the time the two men meet near Washington on Jan. 3.

Sources said Assad hopes to obtain billions of dollars in Western and Arab aid in the wake of a peace treaty. They said a formula is being discussed in which the European Union will contribute $3 for each $1 in U.S. aid.

Eliahu Kanovsky, a professor at Bar Ilan University and regarded as one of the most prominent economists in the Middle East, said Syria wants a quick infusion of billions of dollars in Western aid similar to that Egypt received when it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

“I believe that the economic situation, which has deteriorated in recent years, is behind the expressed willingness of Syria to seek a peace agreement with Israel, hoping that this will save the situation,” Kanovsky said in a study.

Bashar Assad Expected to be Given High Post

The son and heir-apparent of Syrian President Hafez Assad is expected to be appointed to a senior post, diplomatic sources said.

The sources, who monitor developments in Syria, said the president appears ready to embark on a new effort to advance the career of his son, Bashar, in a bid to ensure his succession. They said the 34-year-old Bashar is being considered to a senior government post.

That move, the sources said, will probably involve appointing Bashar to a leadership position in the ruling Baath Party. A session of the Baath Party Central Committee is not scheduled until the spring but Assad could call for an early convention.

The sources said the appointment of Bashar will probably be announced as part of a new Cabinet. Assad is expected to appointed Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shaara as prime minister. The London-based A-Sharq Al Awsat daily said on Dec. 21 that A-Shaara will keep his post at the Foreign Ministry.

The newspaper said the new government is expected to be announced before the start of the next round of Israeli-Syrian negotiations on Jan. 3. Syria has pledged that it will maintain an equal level of representation at the negotiations, the Israeli team of which is led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

During A-Shaara’s illness in October and November, Bashar served as de facto foreign minister and was sent to Paris to hold talks with French President Jacques Chirac as well as visits to the Gulf states. Bashar is believed to have also been placed in charge of Syrian-Iranian relations, regarded as the most sensitive element in Syria’s foreign policy.

The diplomatic sources said Bashar’s key role has been trying to drum up Gulf financial support for Syria. The efforts appear to have led to results.

On Monday, Kuwait agreed to grant a loan to Syria to develop infrastructure projects. Syrian Minister of State for Planning Abdul Rahim Sbei and the director general of the Kuwaiti Fund for Arab Economic Development, Bader Hameidi, signed an accord whereby the fund will provide a loan of 6 million Kuwaiti dinars help finance a provincial highway in the north.

The Kuwaiti fund has provided Syria with 25 loans. Diplomats said Kuwait has agreed to consider financing other projects in Syria in the fields of communications, electricity and sewage.

Syria Links Lebanese Talks to Israeli Withdrawal

Syria has delayed a green light for Lebanon to join negotiations with Israel until the Jewish state issues a commitment to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights.

The London-based Al Hayat daily said on Dec. 21 Syrian leaders have told their Lebanese counterparts that they are waiting for an Israeli commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines, the eve of the Six-Day war in which Israel captured the Golan Heights and other territory. So far, Israel has objected.

The newspaper said this will be the major demand by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shaara in the next round of negotiations with Israel, scheduled for Jan. 3 at a secluded location in Virginia. Earlier, President Hafez Assad told U.S. President Bill Clinton that neither Lebanon nor Syria would sign a separate peace treaty with the Jewish state.

On Dec. 20, A-Sharaa briefed President Emile Lahoud, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Salim Hoss, and Interior Minister Michel Murr at Baabda Palace. He said the decision whether to allow Lebanon to begin talks would be made after the next round of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

A-Shaara grew testy when he was asked by a reporter when Syria would withdraw its 40,000 troops from Lebanon. “Nobody has the right to ask this because we have not heard of this [demand],” the foreign minister said.

The Syrian foreign minister said the priority in the current negotiations is the return of Israel to its June 4, 1967 borders, the eve of the Six-Day war. That is to be followed by an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, relations with Israel and water issues.

“The elements of peace are known,” A-Shaara said.

A-Shaara would not say whether Syria has fulfilled a U.S. demand to press the Hizbullah and Amal militias to end their attacks on Israel.

“The issue of the Lebanese resistance is a matter for Lebanon to discuss,” he said, adding that Syria “understands the role of the resistance in Lebanon and the important role Lebanon has played in defending its rights against the Israeli occupation.”

Syria Admits Killing of Major Islamic Leader

Syria, seeking to head off concern of increasing unrest, has acknowledged that a leading Islamic cleric was assassinated in what the regime asserts was a criminal attack.

Syrian sources said Sheik Mohammed Amin Yakan, 62, was assassinated on Dec. 16 as he was driven to Tarhin village near Aleppo. They said four suspects were arrested and two remain at large.

Yakan was a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and served as a mediator for President Hafez Assad in his attempts in 1997 to reconcile with the underground Islamic opposition. Assad drove the Brotherhood underground in 1984 in a campaign that was said to have killed 20,000 opponents of the regime.

On Dec. 21, the London-based Al Hayat daily quoted official Syrian sources as saying that Yakin was killed in a hail of gunfire by opponents trying to reverse a government decision on land use. They said the sheik was responsible for a piece of land being sought by an Aleppo-area family and designated for the construction of a research center.

The suspects were quoted by Syrian sources as saying that they meant to shoot toward Yakin’s car to intimidate him. They said they did not mean to kill him.

The sources said Syrian authorities are continuing their investigation. Diplomatic sources said the killing has raised tension around Aleppo and the surrounding area and could point to a loosening of President Hafez Assad’s grip on power as his health deteriorates and his family is divided.

Syria, the sources said, is undergoing a creeping process of Islamization, with Islamic fervor increasing both in Damascus and particularly in provincial cities. They cited an increase in mosque attendance, beards and public observance of the fast month of Ramadan.

The Islamization has a militant side, the sources said. They report that Christians and non-Sunnis are expressing rising concern over pressure to observe Muslim tenets in towns with large non-Sunni minorities.

Iraq, Syria Agree to Reopen Pipeline

Iraq and Syria have agreed to reopen an oil pipeline shut down since 1980.

The reopening of the oil pipeline would allow Iraq to export oil through Syria to Western Europe at reduced cost. The pipeline will also bring revenue to Syria.

Officials said the pipeline has a capacity of 300,000 barrels a day. It was closed by Syria after Iraq invaded Iran, Syria’s leading ally.

For years, Iraq has been exporting oil the Iraqi harbor of El-Bakr on the Gulf and through a pipeline that passes through Turkey to Jihan harbor on the Mediterranean Sea.

Oil analysts said the reopening of the pipeline through Syria could lead to an increase in Iraqi exports. They said it would also reactivate the Gulf harbor at Khour El-Amia.

They said Iraqi oil exports could be increased from nearly 600,000 barrels daily to nearly 2.9 million barrels daily for the coming year.

In another development, the U.S.-based Largo Vista Group Ltd., said it reached an agreement for 49 percent of a joint venture to establish operations in the United Arab Emirates for distribution of petrochemical products worldwide. Majority share would be held by the UAE’s Silver Falcon.

Iran: We Support return of Golan

Iran has provided a qualified endorsement of Syrian negotiations with Israel.

In its first official response, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Teheran supports Syria’s efforts to obtain the Golan Heights. The spokesman said Iran understood that this would mean negotiations with Israel.

Hamid Asefi, the spokesman, said Teheran did not regard Syrian negotiations with Israel as part of the Middle East peace process opposed by Iran.

“The Syrians have also proved that they move in line with their rights,” Asefi said on Dec. 21.

But the spokesman said Iran, Syria’s leading ally, will continue to oppose reconciliation with and recognition of Israel. He said the Palestinians are making concessions to Israel on their basic rights.

“No progress has been made regarding the restoration of Palestinians rights” Asefi said.

The break in nearly two weeks of silence by Iranian officials come as Bashar Assad, the son and heir-apparent of President Hafez Assad, is expected to arrive in Iran over the next 48 hours to meet leaders of the Islamic regime. The focus of the talks will be the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

On Dec. 19, the Kayhan International daily, which is aligned with the ruling Islamic clergy, raised the specter that Israel and Syria might reach a peace agreement. The newspaper said Iran would not stand in the way of such a development but would not join any reconciliation effort.

“Although there has been some sort of a mixed reaction in the Islamic republic over the resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks, political observers believe that at the end, Iran cannot be more Syrian than Assad but at the same time maintain its position that Israel is an illegitimate entity,” the newspaper said.

The mild tone constrasted with assessments reported in Israel. Israeli government sources said on Dec. 20 that European Union Miguel Moratinos brought a message from Syrian leaders to their Israeli counterparts that expressed Assad’s fear that Iran and Hizbullah would torpedo any agreement.

The message urged Israel to quickly agree to a peace treaty before Iran and Hizbullah could organize opposition.

Kayhan said it expected tough negotiations between Israel and Syria in a land-for-peace deal. The newspaper said the Golan Heights is of “crucial strategic importance” for both Israel and Syria.

Iran, the daily said in an editorial, has been cautious in its response to Syria’s efforts. Kayhan said that since Syria first agreed to negotiate with Israel, Iran has done little more than express implicit criticism.

Earlier, the Iran News said Teheran is divided over Syrian talks with Israel. The argument pits those who urge Iran to prepare for joining the process of reconciliation with Israel against those who pledge never to make peace with the Jewish state.

Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri urged the Islamic world not to reconcile with Israel and instead bolster its militaries. In a speech at Teheran University, Nateq-Nouri said, “Palestine is for Palestinians. The thieves have to leave so we can go back home.”

Syria Allows Criticism of Peace Talks

In an unusual move apparently designed to increase support for any peace treaty and forshadow official policy, the regime of President Hafez Assad has allowed criticism of Syria’s decision to resume negotiations with Israel.

A Syrian writer has warned that Israel stands to gain more from a peace accord than Syria and warned against normalization of relations with the Jewish state. This could harm Syria’s relations with the Palestinians and Arab regimes in the Middle East.

Ali Orsan, chairman of the Syrian Arab Writers Association, said Damascus has signalled that it will make significant concessions to Israel in return for the Golan Heights and allow full Israeli control of the Sea of Galilee and an Israeli presence in an early-warning station on Mount Hermon.

“The success of these negotiations will facilitate many dangerous Arab changes regarding the Arab-Zionist conflict,” Orsan wrote in the Al-Usbu al-Adabi magazine. “The Zionist occupier will have recognized borders, water, normalization and a reputation for striving for peace. We, on the other hand, will remain with thorns stuck in our throats.”

Orsan is regarded as heading an organization subservient to the Syrian regime and excerpts of his article were also published in the London-based Al Hayat daily.

Western diplomats said the criticism voiced in Syria was meant to prepare Syrians and other Arabs for normalization of relations with Israel that would include full diplomatic ties, open borders, tourism and trade. Another aim, they said, was to signal Syria’s pledge to help the Palestinians after a peace treaty is signed by Damascus and the Jewish state.

Arab diplomatic sources and report asserted that Syria has rejected the opening of embassies until the “last Israeli soldier” leaves the Golan Heights. The Al Hayat daily said Syria has also rejected an Israeli proposal for an exchange of territory to ensure that Israel maintains the Hamet Gader outpost, which oversees the Yarmouk River.

Orsan said Syria won a “political victory” when Israel agreed to resume negotiations at the point they were suspended in 1996, an implicit recognition that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pledged a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But this does not mean that Israel will honor such a commitment.

“This omission does not mean Syria failed to learn the lessons of the past, when Zionist deception was revealed on several occasions,” Orsan wrote. “It is sufficient to mention the American attempts to evade Rabin’s deposit in order to force Syria to resume the negotiations without mentioning the progress that was achieved at the Wye Plantation. It is possible that Syria received a written American guarantee for a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 border, but the question remains whether this issue has become inevitable from the Israeli perspective? I seriously doubt it.”

“It seems that this issue will become one of the obstacles the negotiators will face, but will not lead to the breakdown of the new negotiations, nor will it prevent the forging of some mutual understanding,” he added.

Orsan appeared to confirm reports that Syria has agreed to an Israeli presence in the establishment of an early warning station on Mount Hermon, the highest point in the region. He said security arrangements and water-sharing, particularly Israel’s insistence of full rights to the Sea of Galilee, have been obstacles to a peace treaty.

“It is plausible that security, emphasized by the Zionist entity, achieved the understanding of the Syrians regarding the early warning station in the Hermon,” Orsan said. “The Syrian side will also consider the Zionist entity’s need for water. We may not be able to legally drink from the water of Tiberias [Sea of Galilee] but we would be able to fish in it, using long arms. There may be some merely cosmetic modifications to the border that would connect the principle of the June 4, borderline with the so-called international border, drawn by Britain and France in 1923.”

But Orsan, in what could forshadow the intentions of Damascus, said after a peace treaty, he will focus on ending Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“The Arab-national aspect of the Palestinian problem is stronger within me than all the marginal [interests] of [one Arab] country,” Orsan wrote. “The problem of Palestine will remain an existential conflict with the Zionist occupiers, until victory, the removal [of the Zionists], and the liberation, even if it takes a hundred years.”