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SYRIA


  
  

 

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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 21,517 21,900  19,500 67
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,160 1,130     1,040 130
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Area (sq.km)
185,180


Population
17,585,540

Capital
Damascus

Currency
 Syrian pound (SYP)

President 
Bashir al-Asad


Update No: 019 - (31/05/05)

Life after Lebanon
Syria completed its pullout from Lebanon ahead of schedule last April 28. It was a wise move and bought it some more time in terms of deflecting US attention; however, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice remarked at the end of May that she was not convinced that Syria had completely pulled out of Lebanon, because, she maintained, there are still many Syrian intelligence agents in the country. The comment suggests the United States do not intend to forego the Syrian question yet, while Lebanon gets ready to hold elections, which could produce a government more hostile to Syrian interests. The United States also led an intense military campaign in western Iraq just a few miles away from the Syrian border with accompanying rumours of an Al-Zarqawi hiding in Syria, and of foreign fighters gaining facilities to enter Iraq from Syria. This is the background against which, in June the Syrian Ba'ath party will hold an important congress outlining President Bashar al-Asad's vision for Syria. There is no doubting Asad will reassert his government's desire to develop the private sector, but given the fragile international context, Asad's pronouncements on political developments will outweigh the importance of potential economic reforms. Syrians might well have considered the retreat from Lebanon as a humiliation, while the steadfast demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of anti-Syrian influence marchers in Beirut, that intensified after the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri last February 14, set an example of dissent that Syrian authorities are no doubt interested to avoid. 

Political and Economic Reforms 
Just as he pre-empted the United States in fulfilling the demands of UN resolution 1559 early, Asad will seek to pull some interesting rabbits out of his political hat at the Ba'ath party congress. Bashar al-Asad, already responded to the 'Lebanon' provocation by creating "a new Ba'ath Party law breaking the socialist monopoly over politics in Syria," which the President will unveil at the forthcoming June congress. It must have the sound byte strength comparable to Col. Qadhafi's announcement Libya was renouncing its 'weapons of mass destruction program' (it is doubtful that as advanced a program as is often touted ever really existed). In effect, the real changes do not have to be substantial, but they must sound and look good on paper. Asad must pre-empt whatever 'color' or 'tree' named revolution the media might give a potential grass roots reform movement from gaining ground in Syria. There can be little doubt that Asad will push an economic reform agenda with little opposition. Indeed, the reforms are necessary and desirable. It will be much more difficult, on the other hand, to reform Syria's political system. Asad is determined and it is believed that he will unveil a significant Constitutional change removing a reference to the Ba'ath Party as "the leader of society." He might well face opposition from old guard members, much as say Mikhail Gorbachev did during his 'Perestroika', who might question the very legitimacy, and future, of the party that such a change would generate. 
There are even suggestions that Asad himself should forego his own membership in the party, in order to offer the perception that a new era truly has begun. The latter suggestion may be premature given existing geo-political conditions, but a reduction of the economic and political domination of the Ba'ath is certainly in the cards. Such a reduction in influence would likely entail new provisions allowing political parties to form. Analysts believe the parties will have to be secular in nature, as non-sectarian politics remains a 'sine-qua-non' of Syrian politics (having had direct experience in dealing with this formula in Lebanon since 1976). Asad and much of the Ba'ath leadership belong to the Shiite Alawite minority, one peculiar to Syria, and religious parties would challenge this aspect directly undermining the Ba'ath in ways that would make it difficult for Asad to lead. During the 1980's there were bitter struggles between the Ba'ath leadership and Sunni fundamentalists such as the Muslim Brotherhood culminating in a horrific battle in the city of Hama in 1982. Where the Sunni were emphatically crushed.
Syria probably also fears the influence of seasoned religiously inclined fighters from Iraq, which is increasingly looking like the training battleground for subversive fundamentalists that Afghanistan was in the 80's. While the Ba'ath is secular, Alawite-Sunni tensions have eased thanks to intermarriage. Both Asad and his brother Maher married Sunni women and are said to be raising their children as Sunnis. In fact, Sunnis stand to gain from reforms, as the old merchant families of Aleppo and Damascus will be free to pursue their business interests again. Many such families fled Syria for Lebanon in the 1960's, or conducted their affairs from Lebanon. As capitalism, or at least private business, gains ground the fear is that for those left behind, the rural families, many of which are Sunni of course. The Ba'ath's new role will be to protect the interest of these groups.
However, one of the main obstacles to the kind of political reforms that Bashar al-Asad might have implemented, as he indicated during his first year as president, remains the intensity of US pressure. During the first six months of the so-called "Damascus Spring," of 2000-2001, pro-democracy and civil society leaders appeared to have an outlet for participation in the Ba'ath party-dominated Syrian society. However, the old Ba'ath guard within Asad's government has used the outside pressure to justify a conservative stance weary of reform, which typically (in the West as much as the East) requires streamlining an entrenched and weary bureaucracy. The US congress and much of the media uncritically accept the portrayal of Syria as posing a significant security threat in the Middle East. The Syria Accountability Act passed in 2004 was renewed in early May and while the measures it imposes are not very noticeable to most Syrians, as US-Syrian trade was very limited to begin with, it helps to perpetuate a negative image of Syria. Syria is still being accused of supporting international terrorism and of attempting to destabilize Iraq. 
Meanwhile, the US has never formally abandoned its claims that Iraqi weapons were moved to Syria, claims exaggerated by Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, who is still being touted as the Bush administration's top choice for ambassador to the United Nations. Secretary Bolton testified on May 6, 2002 that "Syria has long had a chemical warfare program," without providing any proof, he even provided specifics asserting that Syria "has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin and is engaged in research and development of the more toxic and more persistent nerve agent VX. Weapons inspectors in Syria exonerated Syria with a report delivered last April 25 by Charles Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group. For its part, Syria, weary of the US allegations, has severed military and intelligence cooperation with the US, as its ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, announced. The ambassador stressed that Syria had done all it could to respond to American complaints, including taking steps to build barriers and add to border patrols.

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