Monday, November 30, 2009

Hezbollah: "This is who we are, today!"

نصر الله: لبنان وطننا ونريده موحدا ونرفض التقسيم والفدرلة (هيثم الموسوي)

Al Akhbar, here & Reuters, here

"Lebanon's Hezbollah group announced a new political strategy on Monday that tones down Islamist rhetoric but maintains a tough line against Israel and the United States.

The new manifesto drops reference to an Islamic republic in Lebanon, which has a substantial Christian population, confirming changes to Hezbollah thinking about the need to respect Lebanon's diversity.

Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who read the new "political document" at a news conference, said it was time the group introduced pragmatic changes without dropping its commitment to an Islamist ideology tied to the clerical establishment in Iran. "People evolve. The whole world changed over the past 24 years. Lebanon changed. The world order changed," he said via a video link.

Stressing a history of struggle against Israel, the 32-page document said Hezbollah had to remain alert and wary of Israel: "Israel represents a constant threat and an impending danger to Lebanon." Nasrallah, reading from the document, said U.S. "arrogance" prevented Hezbollah and other Arabs and Muslims from forging a friendship with the United States, Israel's chief ally. "The American administration's unlimited support to Israel ... places the American administration in the position of the enemy of our nation and our peoples," he said.

Nasrallah said Hezbollah needed to keep its arms, despite opposition from Western-backed political groups in Lebanon. "The (resistance) is a permanent national necessity that should last as long as the Israeli threat, and in the absence of a strong, stable state in Lebanon," he said, quoting the document.....

Attacks by Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, were instrumental in Israel's decision to withdraw from south Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation....

Nasrallah said Hezbollah has become a global model of how to fight occupation. "Our problem with them (the Israelis) is not that they are Jews, but that they are occupiers who are raping our land and holy places," Nasrallah said.

AFTER the IAEA vote: Christmas comes early for Tehran!

Via the WPR,

India proposes to invest $6.5 billion in Iran gas fields

"India today proposed to invest $6.5 billion to develop gas fields in Iran and sought more liquefied natural gas (LNG) from that country. At the same time, India asked Iran to honour the 2005 LNG import deal and ensure secured supplies of gas through the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.
In the first high-level contact in two years, India told the visiting Iranian deputy oil minister and National Iranian Oil Co (NIOC) managing director, Seifollah Jashnsaz, that it was keen to buy five million tonnes of LNG a year besides the ones signed in 2005, sources said.
India also asked Iran to give the ONGC Videsh-led group rights to develop the gas field it discovered in the offshore Farsi block. It sought 20-25% stake for the overseas investment arm of Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) in the Phase-12 of the gigantic South Pars gas field in the Gulf...."

and, Russia vows quick completion of Bushehr atomic power plant
Russia’s energy minister pledged yesterday a quick completion of Iran’s first nuclear power station, Iran’s state broadcaster Irib reported, weeks after Moscow announced the latest delay to the Bushehr plant. Russia said in mid-November that technical issues would prevent its engineers from starting up the reactor at Bushehr by the end of the year as previously planned. “Russia will complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant at the earliest (possible) time,” Irib quoted Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko as saying after talks with Iranian Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi in Tehran. “The quick completion of the Bushehr power plant is the most important issue for both the Iranian and Russian atomic energy organisations and technical steps in this regard are under way based upon the scheduled plans,” he said. Shmatko, who also held talks with other senior Iranian officials, said the Bushehr project had become “a symbol of co-operation between Iran and Russia and nobody dares to hurt it,” Irib added.

By giving Israel veto rights & threatening more sanctions, the U.S. is squandering the best chance we have for a negotiated solution with Iran...

"Ordinarily, it would have been easy to dismiss the latest resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency [PDF] censuring Iran as a text, drafted by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But context is everything. Whether by design or default, the unhelpful resolution comes at a time when the Iranians are still in the process of working out the terms of a landmark agreement on a nuclear fuel swap. If implemented, this would represent the first genuine breakthrough in the nuclear arena since the present standoff between Iran and the West began in 2005....
......... the TRR fuel deal represents a political victory for Iran because it shows the U.S. and its allies are willing to engage in dialogue and deal-making despite Tehran not suspending enrichment — something Washington has been insisting on since 2005.
Despite these benefits, the proposal ran into trouble in Tehran for two reasons. First, ever since the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this year, the Islamic Republic has been buffeted by deep political schisms that have reduced the president’s room for manoeuvre internationally and also, perhaps, his appetite for compromise. Second, Iran’s establishment is distrustful of France and, to a lesser extent, Russia, and fears the deal may not be honoured once its LEU is exported. The fact that IAEA director general Mohammed ElBaradei, who has generally played straight with Iran, retires December 1 is a further source of unease in Tehran. His successor, Yukio Amano, is an unknown quantity. Would he, for example, insist on upholding the Western side of the bargain if France declares, sometime next year, that it will not supply fuel for the TRR after all? No gambling man would be willing to wager a large sum on Mr. Amano defying the West.
In order to cover for all contingencies, Iran modified the original proposal. In an interview to The Hindu earlier this month, Foreign Minister Manochechr Mottaki said the swap should take place on Iranian territory. This condition would not alter the essential structure of the deal......
For reasons best known to itself, however, Washington declared the original proposal could not be modified. Rather than using Mr. Mottaki’s comments on a swap inside Iranian territory as a means of swiftly closing the TRR deal, President Barack Obama expressed disappointment in Iran’s response and said the Security Council would soon have to consider fresh sanctions. It is in this context that last week’s IAEA resolution must be seen. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. won Chinese backing for it by sending Dennis Ross, arguably the most pro-Israeli official in the White House, to Beijing with the message that the Zionist state was likely to attack Iran if the IAEA and UNSC did not act against Tehran............
Sadly, the U.S. has now further undermined the prospects for dialogue. Iran has responded to the latest IAEA vote by threatening to further downgrade the level of its cooperation with the Agency. It knows the purpose behind the IAEA vote is to prepare the ground for more sanctions. Russia and China went along because they have a veto in the UNSC and were willing to kick the can down. India, which voted against Iran, naively stated that the latest resolution “cannot be the basis of a renewed punitive approach or new sanctions”. But Brazil, which abstained, demonstrated a clearer understanding of international politics. “The resolution clear the way for sanctions... and sanctions don’t lead to anything,” its ambassador to the IAEA said......
Since existing sanctions — and the impending threat of more punitive measures — have had little impact on Iran, the U1+5 need to seriously rethink their approach. One way out of the current impasse is for the UNSC to suspend sanctions for a finite period, to begin with, during which time the Iranians once again voluntarily abide by the AP and step up cooperation with the IAEA over the alleged weaponisation studies. This mechanism would allow the agency to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear activities in Iran, following which U.N. sanctions could be lifted. While the world would welcome such an outcome, Israel wouldn’t, since it is not prepared to accept a safeguarded Iranian enrichment programme under any circumstances. Mr. Obama’s inability to press ahead with his campaign promise of engaging Iran is of a piece with his failure to play the honest broker on the Israel-Palestine issue and can only lead to confrontation and conflict. Sooner rather than later, the world, and America, will come to regret this abject failure of leadership."

Two decades of US foreign policy dedication "to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny", unoticed! What gives asks Thos. Friedman

'Ungrateful Muslims ...'
Matt Yglesias, here

'Thomas Friedman’s recent “green” turn sometimes makes me feel bad that I ever said anything mean about him, but then you go read something like this:

Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny— in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

Next time you’re asked to defend the proposing “U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to free them from tyranny” at a debate competition, you’re probably going to want to ask Friedman to join your team. But as a real characterization of American policy, this is laughable. And, indeed, from across the pond Alex Massie seems rather amused:

In one sense it is charming that the Cousins retain such a faith in their own idealism; in another it’s infuriating that they so often fail – Friedman being a regular exemplar of this – to appreciate that their idealism is a pretty cloak for America’s self-interest. There would be less wrong with this if America’s great idealism were applied more consistently. But since it isn’t it’s unwise to boast too much about it or to pretend that it’s the only motivation for US foreign policy and that if only this were more perfectly understood all would be well.

More than “charming” or “infuriating,” however, I think this sort of thing is positively dangerous. It’s one thing to make up fairy tales to amuse the children, but the danger the United States keeps stumbling into is a tendency among our elite to start believing the fairy tales. So before the invasion of Iraq we had people like Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg assuring us that not only was invading a great idea but that invading would have a beneficial impact on Muslims’ assessment of the United States. Now we have Friedman stumbling around, baffled, as to why Muslims don’t see our policy as primarily driven by an effort to help them out. This kind of self-deception leads to very, very bad judgment.'

Likud: "The Obama administration is an enemy of the Jews and the worst regime there ever was for the State of Israel... ”

Haaretz, here
"... "The Obama administration is an enemy of the Jews and the worst regime there ever was for the State of Israel," said Yossi Naim, the head of the Beit Aryeh regional council, at the Ra'ana meeting. "I announce to Obama: You won't be able to stop us." ....
Directing his comments to Livnat, he said: "I am proud and happy that you said what you said, because you had the public courage to say what most of the public feels ever since Obama came to power."
Nahman repeatedly referred to the U.S. leader as "Hussein Obama," omitting his first name...."

Ackerman (D-NY):... I fear that the Arabs will blow it ... again

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, has praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement that he would undertake a ten month freeze of new settlement construction in the West Bank.

“The temporary restrictions that Israel is adopting—purely as a matter of good faith—should be recognized by Palestinian leaders as an opportunity to reengage with the Israeli government in negotiations on an agreement that will finally put the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to rest," Ackerman said in a statement. "I hope the Palestinian leadership and Israel’s Arab neighbors seize this opportunity. I fear, given past patterns and practices, that they will be tempted to again make the perfect the enemy of the good, and in doing so, diminish the hope on all sides that peace is possible."

“What Prime Minister Netanyahu has committed to is highly significant and instead of responding with complaints, this courageous step should be cause for positive acknowledgement and for rededication to moving the peace process forward," he continued. “What is needed is for the Prime Minister’s courage to be matched by a willingness among all the parties to move ahead to negotiate the most difficult and challenging issues that stand in the way of a final peace agreement.

“As President Obama has reiterated, the United States is committed to achieving peace between a viable, independent Palestinian state for the Palestinian people, and a secure, democratic, Jewish State of Israel. The decisions announced today will, I hope, bring that achievement closer to fruition."

"... The only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim..."

Tareq Ramadan in L'Illuste via WarInContext, here

Tariq Ramadan: One must respect the fear of ordinary citizens, while one also must resist in civic fashion populist parties which are instrumentalising fear in order to win elections. The majority of our fellow Swiss citizens are not racists: they are afraid and they would like to understand. Swiss people of the Muslim faith have a real responsibility to communicate and explain…. At the same time, one must refuse to allow populism to install itself. The problem is that the UDC [the Democratic Union of the Centre, another name for the Swiss People’s Party] initiative is using the symbol of the minaret to target Islam as a religion. I have had debates with Mr. Freysinger. [Oskar Freysinger is a parliamentarian in the Swiss People’s Party and a driving force in the campaign.] What does he say? That “Islam is not integratable into Swiss society.” So he says to me, to me, and I am Swiss like him, that “You are not a good Swiss person, you cannot be one, since your quality of being a Muslim prevents you from being a good Swiss person.” That is the foundation of the debate: the problem is Islam, not minarets.

Arnaud BédatBut the minaret, you write so yourself, is not a pillar of Muslim faith.

TR: Yes, but is that a reason to say “Since it is not an obligation, you don’t need it”?… Does it have to be that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim? Is this the future of our pluralism and of our living together?

ABNumerous Islamic countries forbid other religions on their territory — there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, for example. Is it not ultimately logical that part of the West reject Islam on its territory?

TR: This is the oft-repeated argument of reciprocity. It is untenable. Respect for the rights and dignity of people is not a question of trade. It falls to us, to us in Switzerland, to preserve our principles of respect, and to not allow ourselves to be colonised by the unacceptable practices of other societies. Let us say first of all that it is wrong to say that religious minorities are always discriminated against in Muslim-majority societies. There are synagogues, churches and temples [there]. However, one should not deny the fact that discrimination and the denial of rights do occur, as in Saudi Arabia. One cannot hold Swiss citizens and residents of Muslim faith responsible for the actions of certain dictatorial governments from which they have often, by the way, fled for political or economic reasons. What one can expect from them [Swiss Muslims], nevertheless, from a moral point of view, is a denunciation of discrimination and ill treatment. That is something I do not stop doing, which has closed the doors of several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to me...."

“Make me look good.”

NYorker, here
"... But the anxiety persists. While political theatre went on inside the General Assembly, Netanyahu kept stopping by Platon’s makeshift studio and repeated his request: “Make me look good.”

Ajami: "settling accounts with roges & tyrannies" might get Obama his groove back

Having no more skin to shed, and quite comfortable in his pro-zionist-neoconish cuirasse, full of praise for Israel ....... Ajami in the WSJ, here

"'He talks too much," a Saudi academic in Jeddah, who had once been smitten with Barack Obama, recently observed to me of America's 44th president. He has wearied of Mr. Obama and now does not bother with the Obama oratory.

He is hardly alone, this academic. In the endless chatter of this region, and in the commentaries offered by the press, the theme is one of disappointment. In the Arab-Islamic world, Barack Obama has come down to earth............

Mr. Obama's election has not drained the swamps of anti-Americanism. That anti-Americanism is endemic to this region, an alibi and a scapegoat for nations, and their rulers, unwilling to break out of the grip of political autocracy and economic failure. It predated the presidency of George W. Bush and rages on during the Obama presidency.

We had once taken to the foreign world that quintessential American difference—the belief in liberty, a needed innocence to play off against the settled and complacent ways of older nations. The Obama approach is different.

Steeped in an overarching idea of American guilt, Mr. Obama and his lieutenants offered nothing less than a doctrine, and a policy, of American penance. No one told Mr. Obama that the Islamic world, where American power is engaged and so dangerously exposed, it is considered bad form, nay a great moral lapse, to speak ill of one's own tribe when in the midst, and in the lands, of others....

Mr. Obama has himself to blame for the disarray of his foreign policy. American arms had won a decent outcome in Iraq, but Mr. Obama would not claim it—it was his predecessor's war. Vigilance had kept the American homeland safe from terrorist attacks for seven long years under his predecessors, but he could never grant Bush policies the honor and credit they deserved. He had declared Afghanistan a war of necessity, but he seems to have his eye on the road out even as he is set to announce a troop increase in an address to be delivered tomorrow......

The Obama diplomacy had made a settlement freeze its starting point, when this was precisely the wrong place to begin. Israel has given up settlements before at the altar of peace—recall the historical accommodation with Egypt a quarter century ago. The right course would have set the question of settlements aside as it took up the broader challenge of radicalism in the region—the menace and swagger of Iran, the arsenal of Hamas and Hezbollah, the refusal of the Arab order of power to embrace in broad daylight the cause of peace with Israel.

The laws of gravity, the weight of history and of precedent, have caught up with the Obama presidency. We are beyond stirring speeches. The novelty of the Obama approach, and the Obama persona, has worn off. There is a whole American diplomatic tradition to draw upon—engagements made, wisdom acquired in the course of decades, and, yes, accounts to be settled with rogues and tyrannies. They might yet help this administration find its way out of a labyrinth of its own making."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

US was "hell bent" on invasion of Iraq ... cared little about what international allies thought...

AP/ here
"... Several nations had hoped to stall the invasion of Iraq to allow U.N. weapons inspectors more time to search for evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction – the key justification for the war. No such weapons were ever found. Yet Bush's inner circle cared little about what international allies thought and refused to halt plans to invade in March 2003, Greenstock said. He said even Blair was unable to persuade Bush, winning only a brief hiatus of two weeks..."

"Zardari is in a slow road to the exit ... "

Laura Rosen, here

"A day after he ceded formal control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons to the Pakistani prime minister, some U.S. South Asia hands forecast that Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari is on the way out of power.

"Zardari is in a slow road to the exit," one U.S. South Asia expert who requested anonymity said Sunday. "He can't easily survive politically, but it will likely be a constitutional process that pushes him out." Zardari's move to hand over formal control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons to Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani "is part of his attempt to make concessions," the South Asia hand continued.

His comments came as a national reconciliation ordinance that had provided Zardari and several other of his cabinet officials amnesty from prosecution expired Sunday. "Now that the NRO is going to expire and he's not immune from prosecution, he is trying to make deals," the expert said. "He could hang on in a diminished role or he could go fast."

The Washington South Asia hand said the U.S. did not think it needed "a contingency plan as long as things proceed constitutionally."

"The official removal of Zaradari's command over the nukes may be a sign he is on the way out, but I don't ever believe the Pakistan military followed his command," said Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror. "In the relatively brief periods that civilian governments have officially controlled Pakistan over the past two decades, they have in reality had little or no real power over the Pakistan military. President Zardari has enjoyed no more command or control over the armed forces than his late wife Benazir Bhutto did when she was prime minister. Instead, the military has always played the political marionette from behind the scenes."

Obama is expected to announce his Afghanistan policy on Tuesday. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are expected to brief Congressional committees on Wednesday."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: Michel Aoun at the Elysee ... not as usual.

FLC has learned from "source Impeccable" that "Les Coulisses de L'Elysee" are putting the final touches on the logistics of Gen. Aoun's upcoming trip to the French capital. "The pomp", says an official with first hand knowledge of the preparatifs, "will reflect the General's prominence as a Lebanese leader" and most pronouncedly as THE leader in the Christian community.
That surely explains the rabid reactions of the likes of Samir Geagea' & most recently Amine Gemayel, to Aoun's 'movements' across the board. The meeting of Aoun with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and the consequences of such a detente on the future of politics in the Mountains of the Chouf & Aleyh, are certainly becoming more than a nuisance to the Gemayels & Geagea', without forgetting the their patrons on either side of the Mediterra-tlantic!

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Mouths filled with hatred"

Via WIC, in JPOst, here

" ... Wearing a dark-blue robe, sitting in St. James's Church, the main Armenian church in the Old City, Aghoyan said, "Every single priest in this church has been spat on. It happens day and night.".... "All 15 monks at our friary have been spat at," he said. "Every [Christian cleric in the Old City] who's been here for awhile, who dresses in robes in public, has a story to tell about being spat at. The more you get around, the more it happens."

A nun in her 60s who's lived in an east Jerusalem convent for decades says she was spat at for the first time by a haredi man on Rehov Agron about 25 years ago. "As I was walking past, he spat on the ground right next to my shoes and he gave me a look of contempt," said the black-robed nun, sitting inside the convent. "It took me a moment, but then I understood." ... But the spitting incidents weren't the worst, she said - the worst was the time she was walking down Jaffa Road and a group of middle-aged haredi men coming her way pointed wordlessly to the curb, motioning her to move off the sidewalk to let them pass, which she did......

These are the very opposite of isolated incidents. Father Athanasius of the Christian Information Center called them a "phenomenon." George Hintlian, the unofficial spokesman for the local Armenian community and former secretary of the Armenian Patriarchate, said it was "like a campaign."..."

'... For Hezbollah "resistance" refers to a fight to the death against the claims of liberty & democracy in Lebanon ...'

In the fair and balanced Weekly Standard, here

"..... Despite eking out a narrow parliamentary majority, the March 14 coalition could not form a government for five months because Hezbollah blocked it--formally, by means of the powers it obtained through the Doha Agreement, and informally, through threats and intimidation. The newly announced national unity government gives 2 of the 30 ministerial port-folios to Hezbollah politicians.

One hears from all sections of Lebanese society that Israel is the key to reining in Hezbollah. Many Sunnis say this; so do significant parts of the Christian community as well as some Druze, in addition to Shia who are not aligned with Hezbollah or Amal, a Shia party friendly to Syria. According to this common line of thinking, Hezbollah's claim to uphold "resistance" would be substantially weakened by an Israeli decision to negotiate with the Lebanese government to leave the Shebaa Farms, some eight square miles of strategically important land on the slopes overlooking southern Lebanon, which almost everybody in Lebanon contends Israel occupies illegally. And Hezbollah's status would be weakened decisively, from this point of view, were Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories and allow the approximately 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon--half of them still in refugee camps 60 years after the armistice Lebanon signed with Israel, and all of them facing restrictions on the kinds of jobs they can hold--to return to an independent Palestinian state. Once all illegal Israeli occupation ends, so the argument goes, Hezbollah's reasons for existing as a fighting force will vanish.

But our New Opinion hosts, and several of the liberal Shia to whom we spoke, adamantly rejected this analysis. For Hezbollah, they persuasively argued, resistance does not refer merely to armed struggle against Israel's occupation of this or that piece of land, or even the battle against Israel's very existence, but a fight to the death against the claims of liberty and democracy in Lebanon and throughout the region in the name of Islamic law as dictated by the Iranian mullahs.

In these difficult circumstances, the United States can take several steps to advance America's interests in Lebanon, which, as it happens, would also advance the interests of liberty and democracy. First, the Obama administration can stop encouraging the widespread view, rooted in decades of pan-Arab rhetoric, that the key to Middle East peace is solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians should be assiduously pursued, but to suppose that the absence of a final agreement between them is what stands in the way of security and stability in the Middle East is to play into the hands of Arab governments that cynically use the conflict to shift their people's attention from their own countries' internal failings and destabilizing ambitions.....

When all is said and done, notwith-standing its daunting complexity and multifaceted exceptionalism, Lebanon--like the Arab Gulf monarchies and Israel too--faces one looming national security challenge that encompasses all others, and its name is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Regional stability depends most of all on crafting strategies to thwart Tehran's export of Islamic revolution. In the near term, that task depends most of all on thwarting Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons."

B of A: "Dubai Crisis May End in ‘Major’ Default..."

Bloomberg, here

"... Dubai’s debt woes may worsen to become a “major sovereign default” that roils developing nations and cuts off capital flows to emerging markets, Bank of America Corp. said.

“One cannot rule out -- as a tail risk -- a case where this would escalate into a major sovereign default problem, which would then resonate across global emerging markets in the same way that Argentina did in the early 2000s or Russia in the late 1990s,” Bank of America strategists Benoit Anne and Daniel Tenengauzerwrote in a report.

A default would lead to a “sudden stop of capital flows into emerging markets” and be a “major step back” in the recovery from the global financial crisis, they wrote.......

‘Best-Case Scenario’

“In a best-case scenario, this will remain limited to a Dubai corporate sector problem, with either some bailout from UAE authorities or a market-friendly debt restructuring,” they wrote.

Bank of America estimates that Dubai’s debt totals $88 billion, and that its external debt equals 103 percent of gross domestic product, according to a separate report.

South Korea’s won lost 1.7 percent, the biggest slump among 25 emerging-market currencies, followed by the Philippine peso...."

"... It can no longer be ignored..."

In the Economist/ here
"SIX years ago, Bashar Assad looked weak, stumbling and isolated. In the words of the neoconservatives dominant in Washington after the conquest of Iraq, his regime was “low-hanging fruit”. .... Yet now the position has drastically changed. Mr Assad is increasingly viewed as an essential part of the region’s diplomatic jigsaw. He is fast coming back into the game. Even America would like to embrace him.
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent flip-flop of Walid Jumblatt, hereditary head of Lebanon’s Druze minority.... Championing the movement that ousted Syria from Lebanon, Mr Jumblatt drew applause in Washington for calling it “a country hijacked by a family and a mafia”.

Yet Mr Jumblatt has recently changed tack again. Syria, he now says, is the core of the Arab world; Lebanon is destined to be on its side. If he had once spoken ill of Bashar Assad, it was only in the heat of emotion ....

..... America piled on the pressure, slapping on sanctions in 2003, recalling its ambassador in 2005 and staging raids across Iraq’s border until as recently as last year. Israeli fighter aircraft buzzed Mr Assad’s beach house in a humiliating display of effortless aerial supremacy. The European Union, for its part, suspended talks on an association agreement in 2004, leaving Syria the only Mediterranean country without a preferential trade deal.......

For sure, Syria’s dogged refusal to kowtow has been costly. Its hurried exit from Lebanon was humiliating. Its failure so far to accommodate itself to the new establishment in Baghdad has been expensive too, with Iraq’s rulers accusing it of plotting recent deadly bombings. Israel, meanwhile, clobbered Syria’s Hizbullah ally in 2006 and its Hamas friends in Gaza earlier this year. Israel also bombed a suspected nuclear site in the Syrian desert in 2007 and recently intercepted a shipload of Iranian arms apparently bound, through Syrian ports, for Hizbullah.If Mr Assad’s hard line at home has earned grudging respect, so has his firmness in foreign relations. Rather than flipping on Iran or abandoning ties to Hizbullah or the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, in order to please the West, his regime has upheld “resistance” as the best way to apply pressure on Israel, while offering to negotiate with it. Frightened by the invasion of Iraq, Syria nevertheless yanked the American lion’s tail by letting insurgents slip into the fray. Such nerve, along with Syria’s generous accommodation of Iraqi refugees, improved Mr Assad’s Arab nationalist credentials just when America’s moderate Arab allies looked callow and spineless.

But Mr Assad’s tenacious immobility has proved a winning course overall, reinforcing Syria’s centrality to regional issues. As stalemate prevails, from Iraq to Palestine, Mr Assad has slowly regained many of the cards he appeared to have lost.

The case of Lebanon is instructive. Since retreating in the face of a popular uprising against its interference, Syria has clawed its way back to a position of less overt but almost as effective dominance. Exploiting Lebanon’s fractiousness, Syria pushed its allies to undermine the pro-Western coalition that won Lebanon’s general election in 2005. Though pro-Syrian parties failed to end the coalition’s parliamentary majority in a more recent election, in June, they have hamstrung its attempts to govern. Only when the pro-Western coalition, known as the March 14th alliance, frustrated in politics and outgunned on the street, quietly addressed Syria’s concerns did Mr Assad’s Lebanese allies suddenly fall into line. The price appears to be that Hizbullah will keep its private army and that March 14th will not press for the UN to implicate Syria in its investigation of Mr Hariri’s death. Moreover, with Mr Jumblatt now hinting that he may jump ship, March 14th may well sink.

Syria’s stubbornness over Israel, while letting militia allies in Lebanon and Gaza harry the Jewish state, has paid dividends too. The Israelis’ assault on Gaza and their willingness to put only partial limits on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, outlined this week, have made it easier to bring Syria in from the cold. And Israel’s continuing failure to squelch Hamas or Hizbullah has left Syria with some useful chips. It hosts Hamas’s exiled leadership and still serves as a conduit for Iranian arms and money to Hizbullah. This gives Syria bargaining power in its long-standing demand for Israel to return the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, tried to provoke a reaction from Mr Assad, when visiting President Nicolas Sarkozy in France, by calling for negotiations without preconditions. Syria had no preconditions, answered Mr Assad on his own Paris visit, but rather rights that everyone recognised. Indeed, Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, seemed to accept that the Heights would one day have to be returned to Syria.

In the capitals of America’s Arab allies, a sense is growing that, in the light of the persistent stalemate between the Palestinians and Israel, stubbornly bloody-minded Syria has been canny all along. In the past, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been waiting for Syria to come truckling back into the moderate fold. Now people in Damascus think the moderates may come truckling to them."

Dubai's default "a serious miscalculation"?

[OxFan: Excerpts:]
"... Dubai's heavily foreign investment-dependent economy began to unravel in September 2008 following the global credit crunch.... By the close of 2008, government-backed companies responsible for Dubai's development had accrued debts of more than 80 billion dollars.
Abu Dhabi bailout. In February this year, following Dubai's difficulty in refinancing a 3.8 billion dollar loan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Central Bank, backed by Abu Dhabi, subscribed to a 10 billion dollar bond, with interest rates set at 4%. However, earlier this month, it became apparent that Dubai would need a much bigger capital injection, especially given that its largest property developer -- Nakheel, a subsidiary of Dubai World -- was due to refinance a 3.5 billion dollar Islamic sukuk bond on December 14.
On November 24, it was announced that Abu Dhabi had provided an addition 5 billion dollar loan:
  • Significantly, insiders indicated that this loan came with strings attached, and that it was to be used to pay disgruntled foreign contractors rather than to re-finance the Nakheel debt.
  • While little is known about Abu Dhabi's reasons for these limits on its assistance, it may have been reluctant to be associated with Nakheel, a company with problems considered to be too big to solve through loans.
Sovereign default? Dubai World had little choice but to announce that it was not only intending to restructure its operations, but also requesting a six-month 'standstill' on its debts. The announcement coincided with the Eid Al-Ahda Islamic and the US Thanksgiving holidays, perhaps in an attempt to limit the impact on global markets.
Although not technically an example of a sovereign default, the request has been viewed as such. This is due largely to the fact that ratings agencies previously stated that any attempt by Dubai to 'restructure the Nakheel sukuk' would be classed as a default. The agencies have thus downgraded most government-backed Dubai companies and entities either to below investment grade or to junk status.
International fallout . The international impact has been immediate and significant. Shares in London yesterday fell by more than 3% -- the greatest one-day loss since March -- on fears that UK companies owed payments in Dubai would be unable to press for them. European bank shares fell by about 3.5%, and shares across Asia suffered. ......Dubai now has a high credit default swap rate of the kind that Iceland incurred at the height of its crisis, making its government one of the riskiest in the world with which to do business.....
Transparency questions. The lack of transparency surrounding these developments is a serious concern:
  • Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, .... told critics to "shut up".
  • Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum told the World Economic Forum meeting in Dubai that the emirate's economy was "humming".
  • The same day, the chairman of Emaar Properties, another of Dubai's large real estate developers, told the meeting that the emirate's economy was likely to grow by 5% in 2009. ..... Gulf News newspaper carried the business headline "Investors Show Confidence in Dubai".
The announcement therefore came as a shock, undermining the government's reputation.
Political collapse? If Abu Dhabi does not mount a serious rescue operation, creditors are likely to seek legal redress against the defaulting Dubai government:
  • In this scenario, 'Dubai Inc' will be widely regarded as bankrupt and the ruling Al-Maktoum family held responsible, due to the 'blurred lines' between the government and the wealth of the ruling family.
  • There would also be political ramifications. It would be unfeasible for Sheikh Mohammed or Sheikh Hamdan to remain in power following such a massive loss of prestige.
If, on the other hand, Abu Dhabi does agree to provide more credit, there will also be significant implications:
  • It will do so only under very strict conditions, since it will be reluctant to pour money into rescuing failed projects.
  • It will thus begin to dictate terms to Dubai, and almost certainly seek to centralise power the UAE federation and rein in Dubai's autonomy.
However, given the political culture of the Gulf states, such moves are likely to be made discretely, in order to allow the Dubai ruling family to save some face. ........There may be a quiet succession to power of one of the members of the al-Maktoum ruling family who is seen as favourable to Abu Dhabi. ....."