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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 21,517 21,900  19,500 67
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,160 1,130     1,040 130
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Bashir al-Asad

Update No: 020 - (01/07/05)

A Syrian spring?
The tenth Ba'ath party congress, and the second during the presidency of Bashar al-Asad five years ago, has opened the way for a series of reforms largely aiming to reduce the power of the Ba'ath party itself and, perhaps, even cautiously lead to the establishment of other parties in the long term. Another important resolution concerns the curbing of the emergency laws, which should now be applied only in cases where national security is being directly threatened. The congress also approved the basis for a partial liberalization of media and the naturalization of 20,000 or so Kurds. The Congress also announced the launch of a new economic policy described as a 'social market' entailing a series of privatisations, while also maintaining government control in strategic government areas and social welfare programs. For a one-party totalitarian state like Syria these reforms are significant and it is remarkable that Syria returns to the reform path while still being threatened by Israel from the south and the United States to the east. The congress and the reforms it has heralded, also suggests there is an internal power struggle, and Asad wants to isolate the conservatives, which would ordinarily have more power in Syria's current geopolitical position. Indeed, President Bashar al-Assad, who is also the leader of the ruling Ba'ath party, fired his two Vice-Presidents Abdel-Halim Khaddam and Mohammed Zouhair Musharaqah shortly after the Congress, and also dismissed General Bahjat Suleiman, Internal Security Forces Chief in the General Intelligence Department (state security), who was considered for many years the strongman of Syria's secret services. These moves seemingly passed unnoticed in the West and the United States in particular, where Condoleeza Rice and other US 'hawks' have continued to launch the tirade that Syria still maintains a strong military intelligence operation in Lebanon - hinting that it has also been behind the assassination of politicians and journalists in Beirut noted for their Anti-Syrian position. 

US pressure not to end any time soon
Syria needed to pre-empt US pressure ever since the swift introduction and implementation of UN Resolution 1559 demanding Syria's total withdrawal from Lebanon. Nevertheless, Syria has continued to be under constant pressure from the United States, and the Ba'ath reforms are unlikely to silence critics. In fact, Syria has tried to 'accommodate' the United States in several areas. It has collaborated with US intelligence after the WTC attacks of September 11, 2001, it has subsided the ambitions of the more radical Palestinian groups easing the transition to the rule of Palestinian Authority president Abu Mazen, it has also closed the border with Iraq and opened diplomatic sponsored relations with the US sponsored government in Iraq, it has made numerous offers to negotiate the Golan Heights and peace with Israel and established very strong working relationship with Turkey. The United States has had no interest in all of that. It insists that Syria should abandon any support to any Palestinian group while leaving the Golan to an unchallenged Israeli rule, and forego its message of Arab unity - a central aspect of the Ba'ath party. 

The US pressure made reforms difficult for Bashar al-Asad and the reformers, which were challenged by more conservative elements stressing the need to tighten the reins of power and security. The reforms of the 10th Ba'ath Party Congress stop short of opening the road to plurality and Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution will still render the Ba'ath party as the "Lead Party' or guide. However, the reforms will make a clearer distinction between administration and party leadership, allowing for more practical solutions. Moreover, the reforms authorize the emergence of other parties, so long as these are not based on any religious faith or ethnic affiliation, unlike in Lebanon for instance. The Muslim Brotherhood will, therefore, continue to have no official or legal right in the country's politics, nor will Kurdish separatists. Two communist parties - among seven others, on the other hand, will be allowed to participate. The economic reforms will provide for a much greater opening to foreign capital and investment, a vast legal and financial reform to facilitate the emergence of a free market and private banks - though such reforms have already been implemented in a more limited manner over the last year - further privatisations to be backed by a parallel strengthening of social welfare to absorb the impact of the free market. It's a huge challenge, as one of the main issues facing Syria, as in many parts of the Arab world, is youth unemployment and Syria needs to create 250,000 jobs every year. Bashar Al-Asad's message is strong and directed to this social group. No doubt, Bashar's wife Asma, a former economist at Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan, has played an influential role in steering him toward financial reforms and in so doing launching a strong challenge to president Bush, it seems Syria is the one saying 'Bring it On' now. 

And 'bringing it' is what the US would actually like to do considering recent allegations that, according to the British Defence Weekly, Jane's, US Secretary of Defence US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld actually wanted to provoke a military confrontation with Syria by attacking Hizbollah bases near the Syrian border in Lebanon. The attack would be launched within the framework of the often touted; one for all excuse 'war on terrorism' featuring multi-faceted US attacks in the Bekaa Valley, where most of Syria's occupation forces in Lebanon were based. Jane's said Washington's aims would presumably have been to pressure Damascus to end its support for anti-Israel Palestinian groups; persuade Syria to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, whatever they might be, and to withdraw its troops from Lebanon; creating the conditions for the ouster of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Asad; and to eliminate Hizbollah. Having withdrawn from Lebanon by the end of April, Syria avoided this potential confrontation. However, with the Lebanese elections over and a victory for the ant-Syrian coalition (even if Hizbollah - which the US often neglects to mention is an official political party - has won in the south) the US could have a more pliable partner in the region and add pressure on Syria from the western front as well. The election of a conservative president in Iran, which has ties to Syria and Lebanon's Hizbollah, might also provide additional fuses for the United States to light and US reactions to the elections were predictable. Some might say that Iranian voters offered a welcome gift to Washington neo-conservatives. Therefore, as Syria reforms, the United States can still produce several excuses to maintain the pressure on Damascus. It will be interesting to see how well the liberalizing policies and Asad himself will fare within the Ba'ath. In fact, the US response to the Ba'ath congress and Syria's reforms was predictably stubborn and 'ideological'. Condoleeza Rice insisted on the need for Damascus to change, seemingly oblivious to the announced reforms, while some sources believe Washington ordered US banks to freeze all accounts of US companies that do business with Syria, alleging "arms are being provided to Saddam Hussein's followers" from Syria. It would be interesting if they applied the same sanction in Saudi Arabia, an important source of foreign fighters & support for the Iraqi insurrection. It also accused Damascus of being "solely responsible for the region's disorder". Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. 

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