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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: 016 - (28/02/05)


The "White and Red" Revolution in Lebanon. Syria Suffers from 'Ukrainian' Syndrome in Lebanon as Taif Accords under Threat 
As frequently mentioned in our Syria reports over the course of 2004 and 2005, Syria has lived in constant tension over US and Israeli pressures that have increased ever since the war on Iraq ended in 2003. In September, The US and France supported a resolution, 1559, effectively asking Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, a fact often cited by the United States to corroborate overt and implied suggestions that Syria is sponsoring terrorism in Iraq and in Israel. Syria has dealt with the pressure by furthering its diplomatic relations with the European Union and Russia, which was essentially re-introduced last month as an important military and diplomatic player in the region. In February, Russia resisted Israeli pressures, and confirmed it will sell weapons and missiles to Syria. In late February, Russia even hinted that it is discussing the possibility of selling weapons to the Palestinian Authority as well. Perhaps, more importantly in the long term, is that Russia has started to reclaim the diplomatic void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was one of the main backers of Syria's Baathist regime. This is the geo-political context surrounding the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The assassination, as shocking as it has been for Lebanon, has naturally caused great concern in Syria, which remains the main suspect according to the US and Israel, for instigating the attack. Hariri had criticized the Syrian presence in Lebanon since Syria backed resolutions prolonging the term of President Emile Lahoud through a constitutional amendment in September - also one of the main reasons prompting UN resolution 1559. 

US and Israel infer Syria's culpability
It is difficult conceive that Syria's presence in Lebanon will last much longer. Anti-Syrian demonstrators attacked symbols of the Syrian presence in Lebanon such as the Baath Party headquarters in Rafik Hariri's native city of Sidon, while Sunni Muslims and Christians have staged frequent protests in Beirut against the Syrian occupation, also demanding the resignation of the government of Emile Lahoud. The three days of official mourning for Hariri were also characterized by a general strike led by the anti-Syrian opposition, which echoed the US and Israeli suggestions, not official yet as far as the United States are concerned - that Syria was responsible for the Hariri attack. Indeed, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, recalled her ambassador to Damascus, Margaret Scobey only 48 hours after the murder of Hariri. The Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon points the finger unequivocally and directly at Damascus, who said that Lebanon, under Syrian occupation, has become a veritable centre of terrorism. Sharon also reiterated the Israeli demand that if Syria wants to join the fragile, peace process revived at Sharm el-Sheikh in early February, it must remove its military presence, as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards deployed in Southern Lebanon. Under pressure, Syria has agreed to a partial pullout and a re-deployment of its troops in Lebanon but refused to concede an outright retreat. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan stressed, however, that a partial redeployment is insufficient. Syria must withdraw completely, he said as UN inspectors were heading to Beirut to assist in the official criminal investigation of the Hariri murder.

Political Fallout in Lebanon...and Syria
In Lebanon, the Hariri murder and the Syrian occupation have caused a dramatic rise in the political tensions that have held for almost 15 years because of the Taif accords, which ended the 1975-1990 civil war. Indeed, not all parties are interested in seeing Syria leave. The opposition, which is led by such notable figures, among others, as Walid Jumblatt is in a straight collision course with the pro-Syrian majority in Parliament. The situation is very reminiscent of the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine at the end of last year. Hariri's tomb serves as the rallying point for the opposition. The former millionaire entrepreneur-premier, who was also a Saudi citizen, has become a martyr and Beirut is filled with meetings, rallies, demonstrations, all night sit-ins with young people wearing the colors of the Lebanese flag - white and red. The debate in parliament next week (beginning of March) will be televised and shown on a giant screen in Beirut. The strikes and demonstrations are being supported by professional associations, banks, business leaders, lawyers and engineers. All participate in regular nightly rallies around Hariri's tomb. Therefore, it will not be until after the crucial debate at the Lebanese Parliament, that Syria's intentions will emerge. Nevertheless, the Shiite majority population of Lebanon and its political representatives Hizbollah and the Amal movement of Nabih Berri are much less keen to see Syria leave. They consider the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops crucial in thwarting potential Israeli ground attacks at the southern border. The Shiite communities were the greatest beneficiaries of the Taif accords of 1989, which finally gave them greater constitutional power in the Lebanese Parliament in proportion to their size. In fact, the Syrian departure is being advocated mainly by the Maronite Christians in Lebanon, who lost much of their influence after 1989 in exchange for greater stability and peace.

Resolution 1559 ends Taif Accord
There is no question that a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon also raises raise doubts about the durability of the Taif accords, which have sustained peace in Lebanon for 15 years. They virtually recognized that Damascus would have a prominent role in the Lebanese scene. Resolution 1559 started to erode the accord, while the murder of Hariri also represents the 'killing' of the Taif accord. What is interesting is that France, under Chirac, did not stress Syria withdraw from Lebanon until the summer of 2004, when Chirac urged Syria to do so. The resolution, clearly, affects far more than Syro-Lebanese relations. Indeed, "Resolution 1559 has become the banner issue of the Christian Maronites and the fear of Lebanese Shiites" said one Lebanese politician. The Shiites are trying to reduce the tension, calling on national unity - as they fear a relapse of the civil unrest of the 80's. The fact that Nabih Berri (leader of Amal) attended the funeral of Hariri and that Nasrallah (General Secretary of Hizbollah) appealed for national dialogue suggest that the Shiites are fearful of a Syrian withdrawal. Currently the armed wing of Hizbollah, which enjoys full political party status in Lebanon under the Taif accord, controls with Syrian support thousands of missiles lined up in Southern Lebanon to protect it from Israeli attacks. Hizbollah also receives Iranian support - meaning Iran will surely have a say in Syria's decisions vis--vis Resolution 1559. Israel certainly has much to gain from Resolution 1559. To stress the point, Israel has blamed Syria for an apparent suicide bombing attack on February 25, in Tel Aviv after a series of claims, which were later rejected by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah. Syria is in the eye of the storm. 

Asad Faces External and Internal Pressure
So far, Syria's suggestions have been hesitant and no doubt, President Asad will not have an easy task. The reformers and the reforms he initiated in 2000 after taking over from his father have been pushed aside by regional events, which have strengthened the military and conservative wing of the Syrian Ba'ath party. If Asad agrees to a total redeployment, he effectively cuts off Syria's negotiating power in a potential comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that has already been closing its doors on Syria, as the Palestinian Authority has opted to proceed unilaterally in discussions with Israel. In other words, Syria's chances of getting the Golan back will become even slimmer if it pulls out of Lebanon. The Alawite minority dominated Ba'ath party in Syria faces considerable embarrassment in Syria itself, and the old guard is not likely to accept the effective loss of the Golan lightly. Indeed, Asad, who lacks his father's political instincts, could well become another victim of the Hariri murder. It is in fact rather difficult to imagine, why and how Syria's government could have sponsored the murder of Hariri, when it was already under pressure to leave Lebanon and performing a diplomatic high-wire act to diffuse the pressure from the United States and Israel, which showed how easily it can target Syrian interests on numerous occasions in 2004. Meanwhile, many questions about the technical aspects of the Hariri assassination remain. No one has confirmed whether it was a suicide bomber or a road placed bomb, though the large crater left by the explosion in the street suggests the latter. The opposition is demanding a full investigation while the US is not waiting to hear any verdicts, demanding Syria leave Lebanon or face more significant international and UN sanctions. A scenario not unlike what was applied against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, which would then leave the necessary room and excuse for an attack on Syria if it failed to comply within a specified time limit. Whether or not they believe Syria was involved in the Hariri murder, several delegations sent by Arab leaders such as King Abdullah of Jordan, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia visited Asad urging Syria to comply with UN Resolution 1559, because unlike the US action against Iraq, the resolution enjoys wider support in the international community. 

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ENERGY

Moscow and Damascus discuss oil cooperation

Opportunities for Russian-Syrian cooperation in the oil industry will be discussed during a visit to Russia by Syrian President, Bashar al-Asad, the Syrian president told students in Moscow's International Relations Institute (MGIMO) recently, New Europe reported.
"We want to explore and extract oil reserves together with Russian companies," he said. "Syria still hopes that the situation in Iraq will stabilise and that it will be necessary for us to start joint projects with Russia in this country also," he said. The Syrian president said that he plans to sign two fuel and energy cooperation agreements while in Moscow. Al-Asad said, "The setting up of free trade zones between our countries may become an important issue."

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FOREIGN ECONOMIC COOPERATION

Moscow and Damascus boost economic and military ties

Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed a raft of documents at the Kremlin recently to revive flagging economic ties and deepen military cooperation, New Europe has reported. 
Projects aim to reverse a slump that reduced the volume of bilateral trade from around US$1bn in 1992 to some 210m in 2004.
Russia will also write off 73% of Syria's debts amounting to US$13.4bn, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said after the consultations. In a joint declaration on friendship and cooperation, Moscow and Damascus also agreed to "develop traditional cooperation in the military-technical sphere with consideration of mutual interests and international obligations."
But Syria's acquisition of modern Russian missiles was not a topic, President Assad said earlier, despite Israeli claims that a major arms deal is in the works. The leaders sought new impetus for ties that flourished in previous decades.
"Syria is a country that had special and extremely warm relations with the Soviet Union and with Russia today," Putin told Assad, who arrived in Moscow recently on a 4-day visit.
Flanked by their ministers for foreign affairs, economics and energy as well as military representatives, the presidents discussed terrorism, the conflict in Iraq and the Middle East peace process, in which Assad said Russia "bears a great responsibility" as a sponsor. "Were it not for your position the situation (in the Middle East) would have been entirely different," he stressed.
Israel has been closely watching Russia's relations with Syria in recent weeks after evidence allegedly surfaced of preparations to supply advanced missile systems.
The Russian weapons reportedly included Iskander-E surface-to-surface missiles capable of striking any Israeli target from Syria. However, the Russian government says none of the missiles will be sold to Damascus.
Igla SA-18 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles able to destroy planes and helicopters were also part of an arms package, according to Israeli authorities that accuse Syria of supporting terrorists and arming Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

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