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Key Economic Data 
  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
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Syria

Update No: 041 - (28/03/07)

Is Syria About to Be Vindicated (Amid Carrots and Sticks)?
In March, officials from the United States, including the US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, met representatives from Iran and Syria. It seems that the Iraq Study Group report was not entirely discarded after all, even as the situation in Iraq, 'surge' and all, shows no signs of improvement, such that the US was nothing short of compelled to talk to both pariah states. Meanwhile, not giving up on its project to bring democracy to the Middle East, the US administration continues to court the Lebanese government. In mid-March, Walid Jumblatt (an outspoken opponent of Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian camp in Lebanon), who had not been granted a US visa in 2005, was granted a meeting with President George Bush, also meeting Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice. The United States' continued support for the government of Fouad Siniora has a detrimental effect on the sectarian arrangements in Lebanese politics. Such support includes a proposed USD 770 million that the administration has asked Congress to approve toward Lebanon's Paris III Conference on Lebanese debt rescheduling - avoiding the painful task of having to adopt politically damaging economic reforms. Should the pledge for funds pass Congress, Lebanon would become the third largest recipient of US aid pro-capita. 

That same American support also helps keep the focus of the Hariri murder investigation on Syria. An additional disconcerting element to the Lebanese scenario, also in the context of the Hariri case, is the mysterious Fatah al-Islam. Six members of this group are said to have confessed their responsibility for last February's attack against two commuter buses near Beirut, which killed three people. The arresting Lebanese authorities added that the group also had intentions of attacking UNIFIL (the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon) posts and 36 politicians, based on evidence, and explosives, found in their apartment in Beirut. There is a Syrian connection, which some might consider predictable, in that two of the arrested are Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus and a Syrian. The government, and parties making up the anti-Syrian camp (the "March 14" coalition, named after the demonstrations in Beirut on March 14, 2005, a month after the murder of Hariri) such as Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces and the Mustaqbal (Future) party led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, had reason to feel vindicated. Indeed, the 'Mustaqbal' newspaper had already suggested, last November, that Fatah al-Islam militants had been sent by Syrian president al-Asad to murder 36 Lebanese politicians. 

This gives the March 14 coalition, yet another pretext to blame Damascus, a reason which finds resonance with the 'war on terror' given the 'al-Qaidaesque' features of this latest radical Sunni Muslim/Salafist group. However, as the US tries to contain Iran and its allies, as noted by the noted journalist from the 'The New Yorker', Seymour Hersh, according to statements from representatives of the political majority and state officials, in Lebanon, this would imply supporting extremist Sunni (as well as Christian) groups against Hezbollah. Whereas, Syrian involvement cannot be excluded automatically, Hersh's revelations do raise questions about the activities of the 'March 14' group, as much as they do about knee-jerk accusations against Syria, every time, there is an attack in which Shiites are not the target in Lebanon. Moreover, the Lebanese government led by the appointed Prime Minister Siniora, insists that the UN establish an international tribunal to investigate the murder of Rafiq Hariri, exacerbating tensions with the Shia representatives in parliament. 

In the background, however, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia have also been talking to find a solution to Lebanon, fearing the echoes of past civil wars that are resonating in the re-affirmation of sectarian divisions in Beirut. France softened its stance toward Syria, as shown by the visit of Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief representative, to Damascus. According to veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, Solana asked Al-Asad for help in reaching "peace, stability and independence" for Lebanon. It is expected that such help would only come in exchange for renouncing on the international Hariri tribunal, as Syrian officials are implying hat should Syrians be involved in the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister, they should be tried by a Syrian court. Nevertheless, Syria received Solana's assurance that the EU would support its goal of regaining the Golan Heights. Solana was quoted as telling Syrian foreign affairs minister Walid al-Moalem: "We would like to work as much as possible to see your country Syria recuperate the territory taken in 1967". Syria had indicated that the price for any cooperation in helping to curb the violence in Iraq (though it is not clear what Syria might do to favor this cause, other than possibly influencing Iran's policy in Iraq), would be Western support (including that of the US) in peacefully recuperating the Golan from Israel. 

While the EU repaired relations with Syria, damaged, under pressure from France and the UK, by the Hariri murder and its investigation, the Bush administration also did some diplomatic fence-mending of its own. While it did not hold one-on-one talks with Syria and Iran at the Baghdad conference, as was expected - perhaps because Syria would have insisted on bringing up the Golan, and Iran would have wanted to mention the nuclear program, rather than limiting the discussion to Iraq - US, Syrian and Iranian officials met and shook hands. In the current context even something as ordinary as a handshake between these countries constitutes a breakthrough. The most recent high-level talks between Syria and the United States took place in January 2005, when Richard Armitage visited Damascus. That meeting was also prompted by American desire for Syria's help in curbing the flow of terrorist groups infiltrating in Iraq. Since the Hariri murder, the US resumed a harder stance, recalling the US ambassador to Damascus and blaming Iran and Syria with undermining peace in Iraq. Nevertheless, apart from the Baghdad Conference, Washington said it would send a high ranking official to Syria (the first since Armitage). Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey will is expected to go to Damascus shortly to discuss "humanitarian issues related to Iraqi refugees" as part of a wider tour with an official from UNHCR. US officials deny that the talks with Syria and Iran and the trip by a senior representative of the State Department represent a shift in policy towards the Middle East. However, the recent meetings with Syria, discounting the Armitage visit pleading for support on Iraq, do suggest, as indicated by Iraqi foreign affairs minister Hoshyar Zebari said, that the Conference was a "very small but important step to break the ice and establish a true dialogue between America, Iran and Syria." 

Could Oil Further Reduce Friction with the United States?
Coinciding with the renewed diplomatic activity to improve ties to the European Union and the Unite States, Syria announced that it wants to play a bigger role in oil production. Syria produces 400,000 bpd of crude and exports half. Most of the production relies on the refineries of Homs and Banias, which have long faced difficulty in meeting domestic demand. However, Syria could fill that need by resuming its role as the min conduit for Iraqi oil through its Banias terminal on the Mediterranean, and adding more refineries if such a plan is approved. Syrian officials said there are already plans for the transit and oil infrastructure, including the building of a new pipeline. Syria would also earn transit fees for the oil by reviving the pipeline. The Syrian deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdallah al-Dardari, also offered a political link for the proposed pipeline, suggesting that facilitating export links for Iraq's oil, would increase prosperity and help stability in Iraq itself. Syria is currently in talks with China to build a 70,000 bpd refinery in Deir al-Zour, while a consortium of investors from the Gulf is also said to be involved in another 140,000 bpd refinery project. 

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