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SYRIA

 
  
  

 

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)

Books on Syria

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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: 031 - (30/05/06)

The Syrian Lebanese Relationship and its Discontents
On May 19, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1680, which builds on the 2004 resolution 1559, concerning Syrian-Lebanese relations. The resolution was drafted by The United States, Great Britain and France. It demands that Syria respect Lebanon's sovereignty by ceasing all interference in its internal affairs, also urging the demarcation of an official border between the two countries. In contrast to the war on Iraq, the United States and France co-sponsored the resolution, suggesting the two countries share foreign policy objectives in the Syro-Lebanese situation. In the fallout resulting from the murder of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, France echoed US demands that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Hariri's murderers must have known that he was well regarded in Paris and was on excellent personal terms with President Chirac. The French shift towards Damascus carries unusual strength. For the duration of the 1990's until the war on Iraq, France had very good relations with Syria where Middle Eastern issues were concerned. Indeed, French President Jacques Chirac was the only western leader to attend the funeral of president Hafez al-Asad in 2000. Nevertheless, France has found an opportunity to rebuild its own fractured diplomacy with Washington by supporting it on Syria-Lebanon matters. One year ago, Syria completed the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon as demanded by Resolution 1559. France was as adamant as the United States that Syria accomplish this demand; losing the support of such a key western ally as France suggests that Syria now has less maneuvering room to reject or dilute UN resolutions concerning Lebanon. This also means that there is a potential for more conflict within the Syrian administration itself as pragmatists struggle with entrenched interests and their protectors to maintain the status-quo vis--vis Lebanon. The new resolution, in its indirect mention of the Iranian influence in Lebanese affairs through Hezbollah and its ally Syria, complicates matters further given the ongoing crisis over Iran's pursuit of nuclear capability. 
Apart from reiterating previous calls for the disbandment of Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, Resolution 1680 formally asks that Syria establish a formal diplomatic relationship with Lebanon. Syria, which has rejected the new Resolution, seemed especially adamant about what it called 'interference' in the border demarcation and diplomatic ties requests, a view echoed by Iran also. In fact, Syria has refused to acknowledge the very concept of diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the past 60 years - that is since Syria and Lebanon gained their independence from France - and it reacted suggesting that UN res. 1680 hampers rather than facilitates the establishment of Syro-Lebanese formal diplomacy. It would be very difficult for president Bashir al-Asad to acquiesce to the new UN resolution in this respect. It might be said that Syria, which considers Lebanon a natural geo-cultural extension of itself (Lebanon was separated from the Ottoman province of Syria after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire), continues to reject the notion of Lebanon as an independent country. The Syrian ministry of foreign affairs also hinted that the current anti-Syrian government in Beirut also makes the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lebanon unlikely or unfeasible. As for the border, accepting the latest UN demand that it delineate its border with Lebanon formally, Syria would have to confront the issue of the Shebaa Farms, which are controlled by Israel, while Lebanon also claims this area for itself. Hezbollah's military arm has used the area to launch attacks against Israel. Therefore, Syria would not realistically discuss any negotiation on a border until the discussion is included in a general Middle East peace process that would also discuss the Golan Heights. Indeed, calls by the president of the Palestinian National Authority (ANP) Mahmoud Abbas to resume the peace process by proposing a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Sharm el-Sheikh, are unlikely to please Syria. For his part, Abbas is using the talks to put pressure on the Hamas executive to come to terms in recognizing the Israel as a sovereign state, but it is unlikely that Syria can start a separate negotiation process over its direct disputes with Israel. Hamas and Syria have been sidelined as if they are not essential to the peace process in the Middle East. 

Stopping Dissent at the Origin
In this context, as pressure on the Syrian presidency mounts, in May there was a reminder of the grimmer periods of the Ba'ath rule. The government, apparently repealing the more open policies maintained by Bashir al-Asad (as opposed to his father Hafez- al-Asad during the 1980's) arrested several writers, activists, and intellectuals over the past week in a sweeping crackdown on internal dissent. One of the more recognized figures under arrest is the journalist Michel Kilo. Civil society groups maintain that this wave of arrests, the most intense since 2001, is aimed to silence those who have openly signed declarations demanding (Michel Kilo being one of these) that Syria improve relations with Lebanon. Syro-Lebanese relations, particularly in response to the UN Resolution 1680, have become a very contentious issue. Causing the friction is the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. It was signed by nearly 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals in mid-May, and it asks Syria to improve its relations with Lebanon, first by setting up embassies in each country and by clearly demarcating the border between the two nations. This is to say that the Declaration makes the same demands and touches the same open 'nerves' as Security Council Resolution 1680. Those arrested (including the aforementioned Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer) were charged with inciting sectarian strife. However, the in view of the contentious nature of the demands, the Syrian government (or some elements within it) perceived the coincidence of the timing and demands of the activists and the Security Council as agreement or support for its position. The human rights lawyer Bunni, had opened a human rights center in Damascus with funds from the European Union, and he was charged with accepting money from foreign entities. In arresting these human rights figures, the Syrian government may also be concerned about the rise of the kind of foreign sponsored opposition and civil rights movements that helped fuel the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine, the pro-Western groups that promoted pro-Western candidates in Georgia and Serbia before that or, indeed, the makings of Syria's own version of a 'cedar' revolution. Resolution 1680, therefore, raises many questions by focusing on the establishment of Syro-Lebanese diplomatic relations and formal border demarcation. The Syrian regime and president al-Asad in particular, face international pressure and possible sanctions, now coming even from one of its closest European allies (France) as well as the possibility of home grown Human Rights groups establishing international ties using it as advantage to support a wider agenda of reform. President Asad cannot appear to be soft on Lebanon. He would lose support among Baath party radicals and expose himself to manipulation. This is especially delicate as the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri continues, and while it uncovers more details about a possible involvement of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence groups. 

Oil Industry Developments
If political pressures for Syria have increased, oil serves as an ideal lubricant for business ones where national disputes are gladly put aside. Indeed, in May, Syria signed an oil-production agreement with US-based Marathon Petroleum Co. to develop the Sha'ir and Sharifa oil fields, as well as gas exploration under a $127-million contract for 25 years and an additional five-year renewable option. Marathon also has the option of selling its interests to another party, should it face such problems as having to leave Syria due to the possible deployment of US sanctions. In 2004, after the Syria Accountability Act was introduced by the US administration, several US oil companies such as ConocoPhillips had left, while non-US based Shell and Total stayed (a situation not unlike - but far less drastic - than was the case with Libya in 1986). Syria is seeking new oil resources to boost production from around 400,000 bpd (2004). China and India are also interested in developing their business relations with Syria. The Chinese firm CNPC and Indian ONGC help look for new oil resources, while their respective governments (as well as Russia) give Syria much needed diplomatic support. Russia and China abstained from voting on the latest UN Security Council Resolution 1680 against Syria. Meanwhile, Iran plans to build an oil pipeline to transfer oil to Europe through Syria.

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