Thursday, October 19, 2006

A little more history....

The previous post was about a 70-year-old video clip of Damascus. This one concerns an article that was published in 1957 in a British military journal called "Flying Review", which I have picked up in a second hand bookshop in Cyprus recently.

The article is entitled "Syria - The Grim Facts".

It was written by a military analyst who feared Soviet expansion and the destruction of Israel and the Baghdad Pact at the time. It provides a fascinating insight into the regional politics of the time and names some Syrian army and intelligence officers who were in charge.

Here is the link. See the comments section of the previous post for instructions on how to download it.

Syria - The Grim Facts, 1957 (PDF file format, 3 megabytes)

Damascus in 1936

If you are interested in history, you can download this film clip of Damascus recorded exactly 70 years ago by an American traveller, Paul Devlin.

Damascus 1936. (AVI format, 14 megabytes)- see the comments section at the bottom of this post for instructions on how to download it.

Mr devlin was fascinated by the history of Damascus but not very impressed by its inhabitants. Remarks such as "not very sanitary", "the baker is not wearing gloves" and "cheap soap on sale but judging by the appearance of the people, there isn't much demand for it" really shocked me, but I found myself totally agreeing with him. Plus ca change...! Basic hygene is still a huge problem in the whole of syria to this day. Rather than be ashamed to admit it (and expect tourists to come back), people and the government should clean up their act. You can see camels wandering about in the city centre alongside trams and horse-driven coaches.

Syrian political prisoners freed

In the last few weeks several high profile political prisoners have been set free, including Michel Kilo today. At least the government seems to be relenting under pressure from Amnesty International and perhaps also Syrian expatriates (see There are still many prisoners of conscience whose families are not permitted to see them and whose fate is unknown. Judging by past behaviour, the regime likes to play cat and mouse games with dissidents. The low profile ones languish in jail without trial and at the rulers' whim and pleasure. The higher profile ones are "taught a lesson" then set free with the expectation that they will tone down their cristicisms or emigrate before they are re-arrested. Let's hope the prisoners release is the result of an enlightened policy change rather than the usual antics.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Man's cruelty to man

People used to think that landmines were cruel. How about DIME?

All credit to Haaretz for publishing this report today and the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights organisation that is raising the issue with the minister of defence. Pity the Gazan amputees and those whose internal organs have been incinerated.

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
Last update - 09:18 11/10/2006
Italian probe: Israel used new weapon prototype in Gaza Strip
By Meron Rapoport, Haaretz Correspondent

An investigative report to be aired on Italian television Wednesday raises the possibility that Israel has used an experimental weapon in the Gaza Strip in recent months, causing especially serious physical injuries, such as amputated limbs and severe burns.

The weapon is similar to one developed by the U.S. military, known as DIME, which causes a powerful and lethal blast, but only within a relatively small radius.

The Italian report is based on the eyewitness accounts of medical doctors in the Strip, as well as tests carried out in an Italian laboratory. The investigative team is the same one that exposed, several months ago, the use by U.S. forces in Iraq of phosphorous bombs, against Iraqi rebels in Faluja.

Israel Air Force Maj.-Gen (res.) Yitzhak Ben-Israel, formerly head of the IDF's weapons-development program, told the Italian reporters that "one of the ideas [behind the weapon] is to allow those targeted to be hit without causing damage to bystanders or other persons."

The investigation, by Rai24news, follows reports by Gaza-based doctors of inexplicably serious injuries. The doctors reported an exceptionally large number of wounded who lost legs, of completely burned bodies and injuries unaccompanied by metal shrapnel. Some of the doctors also claimed that they removed particles from wounds that could not be seen in an x-ray machine.

According to those who testified, the wounded were hit by munitions launched from drones, most of them in July.

Dr. Habas al-Wahid, head of the emergency room at the Shuhada al-Aqsa hospital, in Deir el-Balah, told the reporters that the legs of the injured were sliced from their bodies "as if a saw was used to cut through the bone." There were signs of heat and burns near the point of the amputation, but no signs that the dismemberment was caused by metal fragments.

Dr. Juma Saka, of Shifa Hospital, in Gaza City, said the doctors found small entry wounds on the bodies of the wounded and the dead. According to Saka, a powder was found on the victims' bodies and in their internal organs.

"The powder was like microscopic shrapnel, and these are what likely caused the injuries," Saka said.

The Italian investigative team raised the possibility that the IDF is making use of a weapon similar in character to DIME - Dense Inert Metal Explosive - developed for the U.S. military. According to the official website of a U.S. air force laboratory, it is a "focused lethality" weapon, which aims to accurately destroy the target while causing minimum damage to the surrounding.

According to the site, the projectile comprises a carbon-fiber casing filled with tungsten powder and explosives. In the explosion, tungsten particles - a metal capable of conducting very high temperatures - spread over a radius of four meters and cause death.

According to the U.S.-based website Defense-Tech, "the result is an incredibly destructive blast in a small area" and "the destructive power of the mixture causes far more damage than pure explosive." It adds that "the impact of the micro-shrapnel seems to cause a similar but more powerful effect than a shockwave."

The weapon is supposed to still be in the testing phase and has not been used on the battlefield.

The Italian reporters sent samples of the particles found in wounds of injured in the Gaza Strip to a laboratory at the University of Parma. Dr. Carmela Vaccaio said that in analyzing the samples, she found "a very high concentration of carbon and the presence of unusual materials," such as copper, aluminum and tungsten. Dr. Vaccaio says these findings "could be in line with the hypothesis" that the weapon in question is DIME.

On the matter of DIME, Ben-Israel told the Italian reporters that "this is a technology that allows the striking of very small targets."

The report says that the weapon is not banned by international law, especially since it has not been officially tested.

It is believed that the weapon is highly carcinogenic and harmful to the environment.

The non-governmental organization Physicians for Human Rights has written to Defense Minister Amir Peretz requesting explanations for the aforementioned injuries to Palestinians. Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to the minister, is supposed to meet with the group on the matter in the near future.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Poverty and wasted education in Syria

Reports published by the UN and Syrian Government in the last 18 months reveal some disturbing social and economic trends. Three of these trends are worth highlighting:

1) Some 11 percent of Syrians live under the national poverty line of two dollars a day. [Brief UN commentary (English) & full report (Arabic)].

Click on image to enlarge

2) Almost 2 million individuals in Syria could not meet their basic needs during the last two years. Overall poverty in the country hovers around 30 percent, and is highly concentrated in the rural Northeastern regions of the country. The bottom 20 per cent of the population consumed only 7 per cent of all expenditure, while the richest 20 per cent consumed almost half. [Brief UN commentary (English) & full report (English)].

3) Enrolment in Syrian public universities is dropping every year. More years of education make no difference in terms of salary differentiation. The number of post-graduate degree holders is continuously in decline. Only 20 percent of Syrian PhDs who study abroad return to enrich their national economy. Each of these facts point to serious structural impediments in the development of the Syrian educational sector. [Brief UN commentary (English) & full report (Arabic)].

The Syrian Government is fully aware of these trends and the impending fall in oil revenues. A common theme in several reports is the shortage of skills and brain drain. Many university graduates cannot find jobs either in the public or private sectors. They emigrate or end up doing menial work in the shadow economy which, according to the Government's own report, is estimated at nearly 40% of GDP. Reforms and foreign investment are still woefully inadequade. Syrian expatriates with the necessary capital and technical skills have no real incentive to return to a country that does not guarantee their human and legal rights or freedom of expression.