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Bashir al-Asad

Update No: 018 - (03/05/05)

Syria has left Lebanon
On April 28, after a brief ceremony, the last 300 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon crossed the border into Syria. The muted ceremony, in the Lebanese army base of Rayak, was attended by head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon Rustom Ghazaleh and the Syrian Army Chief of Staff Ali Habib, among other Syrian and Lebanese officials. However, the low-key event masked what has been a very significant presence, for better or worse. Syrian troops arrived in Lebanon 29 years ago, on May 31, 1976 at the behest of the international community (and Henry Kissinger) to prevent the ultimate defeat of the right wing Maronite Christian militias in the civil war that started in 1975 between progressive secularists, Muslim militias - Sunni and later Shiite - and the PLO. There were fears that the war might cause regional instability extending to Syria itself as well as the Middle East in general. However, Damascus' intervention only managed to control the first phase of a much wider civil war that would result after the Israeli invasion of 1982 (there was a previous Israeli invasion in 1978), and the radicalization of the Shiite community from the Amal movement to Hizbollah. That war, after causing over 150,000 deaths would only end in 1990, thanks to the Taif accords that re-distributed the balance of power prior to the civil war in a more or less similar way but in such a way as to account for the ethno-demographic realities that had the Shiite community as the most numerous. Lebanon's semi-democracy had been founded along ethnic lines after independence, based on an assumption that Christians outnumbered Sunnis and Shiites. The international community, Washington included, also welcomed the Taif accords and the role that Syria would play to enforce them in Lebanon. Damascus had at one time up to 40,000 troops in Lebanon to guarantee stability. Before the April re-deployment, there were 14,000 Syrian troops. 
The famous military road that joined Syria and Lebanon avoiding the need to pass through the regular border was closed shortly after the military trucks, featuring pictures of president Bashir al-Asad, reached the Syrian side. Syrian troops used this road regularly, though, reportedly, so did big league smugglers, who did not appreciate the potential attention at the regular border. On the subject of smuggling and goods exchange, there are rumors that the free exchange of goods across the border will soon be terminated. The Lebanese army will now have the task of safeguarding the Beqaa valley. The valley was once flowering with hashish plants. Over the next few months, other relationships between the two independent countries that were united until shortly before the Second World War will have to be redefined, beyond the more discussed geo-political issues. Lebanon has long acted as a sort of Hong Kong for Syrian businessmen interested in having greater access to the global market, particularly in terms of trade financing and banking services. However, many Syrians, up to 700,000 also work in Lebanon in less glamorous jobs. There are rumors that the escalating Syro-Lebanese tensions in recent months have also generated their own peculiar form of racism provoking 20 deaths.
As the last soldier crossed the border, the Syrian foreign affairs minister Faruq Al Shara, sent a missive to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is responsible fro relaying the report to the UN Security Council concerning UN resolution 1559 (concerning the retreat of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarmament of the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance) indicating that, Syrian troops had completed their retreat as agreed; indeed, they completed the retreat 2 days in advance of the April 30 deadline. Shara also stressed Syria's role in rebuilding the Lebanese army according to a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic logic. Shara also reminded the international community that there are many pending UN resolutions in the Middle East and that the Security Council should see to it that compliance with these is encouraged with the same steadfast determination, as was the case with 1559. Notably, Shara, stressed resolutions concerning the "complete re-deployment of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights, from the Lebanese Sheba farms, from the Occupied Palestinian Territories along the lines of June 4, 1967, as well as ensuring a respect for the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people". Syria's advanced timing on compliance with resolution 1559 avoids potential censure from the United States and France - the resolution sponsors. Kofi Annan himself is said to have encouraged this while postponing a report on the resolution to the Security Council by a week angering the Bush administration. Syrian President Bashir Al-Asad also attended the funeral of John Paul II at the Vatican, in itself an apparently non-newsworthy event given the wide attention given to the occasion, but a significant one in reinforcing the view that Syria is not a 'rogue state', and that it abides by international rules. 

Who is next?
In the next few months, the questions of 'who will be next' and 'what will become of the Asad regime' will be increasingly addressed. The western, and particularly the US and Israeli, rhetoric concerning Lebanon since the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri would have us believe that the occupation of Lebanon by Syrian troops was the only such occupation in the region. Syria was the last remaining bully that needed to be defeated in order to achieve an idyllic state of affairs. News of the completion of the Syrian retreat was hailed by the Western press, and politicians, spoke, seemingly unaware of their hypocritical tones and attitude suggesting that Lebanon is free to pursue self-determination and democracy. The American media followed suit with such publications as the New York Post presenting the retreat as some sort of monumental victory for freedom. While the Arab world is generally pleased that Syria has complied so swiftly with resolution 1559, taking away an excuse for an escalation of US rhetoric and potential military action against Syria by the United States, Arab media, has focused on the issue of 'who will retreat next ?' Arab commentators argue that the international community's failure to cite Israeli Occupation of Palestine merely exacerbates the "wound", and wonder aloud whether Syria's compliance with UNSC Resolution 1559 will be followed by Israeli compliance of 242 and 338. The commentators are expressing merely milder concerns of the Arab street, which is asking why Syria and 1559 and not Israel and 242. The concerns are highlighted by the fact that despite the promised Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Prime Minster Sharon and President Bush continue to highlight the difficulties and unpractical aspects of dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem. Bush and Sharon are careful to describe the settlements as 'population centers'. Therefore, while the Syrian retreat is being widely celebrated, the US censured Syrian government, having abided by the demands of Resolution 1559, has actually refocused the international pressure - deflected onto Syria since the Hariri assassination - on Israel the remaining hold-out on UNSC resolutions and the United States in Iraq. 
As for president Asad himself, we have previously speculated that the retreat from Lebanon would be widely considered as a defeat at worse and an embarrassment at best. The young Asad has played a skillful hand in dealing with the Lebanese situation by removing the object of American attention, if only temporarily, but he will have to deal with Ba'ath party hardliners, who will emphasize the fact that Syria has lost an important negotiating card in an eventual Arab - Israeli peace process. The forthcoming elections in Lebanon might well produce a government less sympathetic to Syria, and one more willing to negotiate a separate peace with Israel. Therefore, the Ba'ath party may yet decide to replace Bashir al-Asad, the British educated Ophthalmologist - and never his father Hafez' first choice as successor - with a more ideological and uncompromising leader such as General Asaf Shaukat, head of intelligence and Assad's brother-in-law, or the president's own brother, Maher Asad. 
Nevertheless, Russian President Putin, who visited Israel and the Occupied territories at the end of April and just as Syria was completing its re-deployment from Lebanon, contributed to add pressure on Israel when he confirmed that Russia would sell SA-18 missiles to Syria. The missiles will make it more difficult for Israeli warplanes to indeed bomb alleged militant training bases outside Damascus, as they did on Oct. 5, 2003, and triumphantly "buzz" one of Syrian President Bashar Asad's palaces. Putin noted that the short-range Strelets missiles would "complicate" the ability of Israeli pilots to fly at low-level over Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's palace in Damascus, as they did in a triumphed show of force in 2003. Finally, Putin said that the anti-aircraft missiles being sold 'cannot reach Israeli territory" sarcastically adding, "To come within their range, you have to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?" 

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