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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: 045 - (27/07/07)

Struggling to Protect Regional Interests as Tension Grows: The Golan or Lebanon?
Syria is most concerned with protecting its interests in the region as the number of challenges mount without any actual realistic chances for peace in the near future. On July 17, Bashar al-Asad was sworn in for his second seven-year mandate as president of Syria delivering a speech in which he reiterated his often stated commitment to engage Israel in peace negotiations; peace with Israel, he said, is in Syria's national interest. His main condition is that Israel must also show a 'clear commitment' to peace. Of course, for Syria peace means that Israel should return the part of the Golan that it has occupied since 1967. A little over a year after the war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah ended almost as abruptly as it had started, there are rumblings of renewed violence possibly breaking out in the Middle East. Nevertheless, al-Asad's calls for peace mask the continued rumors over the past few months that Syria and Israel might well end up at war over the Golan in concomitance with a US attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. The US has, in fact, provocatively built up its forces in the Persian Gulf of the past few months in what to all accounts looks like a build-up in preparation for an attack. Two aircraft carriers are already deployed there, while the USS Nimitz is also apparently heading for the region. Military analysts note that the carriers give the US 300 jet fighters within striking distance of Tehran. 

As for Syria, Damascus and Tehran signed a mutual defence pact, implying that any attack on Iran by the United States would eventually also involve Syria. It would not be surprising, if as has been speculated, during his recent visit to Damascus president Ahmadinejad and Bashir al-Asad signed a deal to supply Syria with more armaments to the tune of USD 1 billion. Syria would use the money to upgrade its aging fighter jets, Soviet-era tanks and anti-ship missiles, and to develop its nuclear and chemical weapons research programs. In May, it was rumoured that Syria secured some MiG 31 aircraft from Russia, but Russia denied this. Meanwhile, The London-based and Saudi owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reports that the defence agreement between the two countries allows Iran to keep MiG-31E fighter aircrafts based in Syria with Syrian markings, but at Iran's disposal. The paper's Saudi connections could be exaggerating claims of increased Iranian-Syrian military cooperation because of a well known regional fear of Iranian influence, but Ahmadinejad's visit was no doubt intended to create the impression of military readiness. Reports also hinted that Ahmadinejad would rather Syria not pursue peace initiatives with Israel (which would leave it isolated) in exchange for Iran's engagement on behalf of Syria in Lebanon. Israel is concerned and such aggressive figures as Avigdor Lieberman, minister of strategic affairs, has already called to attention what he feels is the growing threat from the 'axis of evil'. Calls from President Bush for a regional peace conference sound hollow on both sides of the Golan and the Arab League peace initiative is losing steam due to a loss of support from Saudi Arabia- which launched the plan last March. 

Le Retour de la France
France, which has taken a remarkable interest in the region, pursuing breakthrough diplomacy, has found that it is easier to deal with Libya's Qadhafi than get involved in the Middle East. Sarkozy has tried to break the deadlock in Lebanon by inviting Hezbollah representatives to a conference of Lebanese political factions in Paris last July 14, softening the policy of isolating pro-Syrian factions and Syria itself, pursued by Chirac. France has broken its silence with Damascus, informing the Syrian government that it wishes to re-open contacts, even as it will continue to advance Lebanon's independence and the establishment of an international tribunal to try those responsible for the murder of Rafiq Hariri. In turn Sarkozy's invitation of Hezbollah suggests he shall follow Chirac's precedent of not placing the group on the list of 'terrorist organizations', as wanted by Tel Aviv. In light of the West's recent experience with Libya, the notion of the Hariri Tribunal is becoming almost impossible to overcome for al-Asad. Sarkozy has offered some incentives by extending a diplomatic bridge to Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian opposition in Lebanon, which leaves the door open to other issues close to Syria such as the Golan, but only in exchange for cooperation on Hariri. There is also the advantage that Sarkozy did not have a personal relationship with Rafiq Hariri, as did Chirac. Sarkozy sent an envoy, Jean-Claude Cousseran, to Damascus and Tehran in a move that formally changes France's policy vis-a-vis Syria under Chirac after the murder of Hariri. It took Libya a decade to hand over suspects for the Lockerbie bombing to an international court (which has come under scrutiny incidentally - see Libya update) but Libya did not have territorial disputes with any of its neighbours. 

The question remains how long can Syria ignore calls for a tribunal on Hariri, whether or not it is in fact innocent of the crime? The issue has become a pivot around which to choose whether to pursue the recovery of the Golan or whether to maintain influence in Lebanon. The main objective of foreign affairs minister, Bernard Kouchner, was to bring together all the Lebanese political factions at the castle of La Celle Saint-Cloud, for talks. Given the failure of the national unity talks in Lebanon last year, it would be a breakthrough if all parties could merely sit along side each other. Moreover, the Lebanese army is still engaged in fighting against the new militant Islamic manifestation of 'Fatah al-Islam' at the Nahr al-Bared camp near Tripoli, which has already left at least 200 dead. Syria has not been excluded by the March 14 ruling coalition as being somehow connected, while others suggest that the fighting is the result of a planned 'false-flag' operation - organized by Siniora, Washington and some members of the Saudi royal family - gone wrong. Syria was not consulted on the agenda of the Paris meeting; however, Paris held talks with Iran and the Arab League. 

Interestingly, Lebanese prime minister Siniora was the one to emerge with most diffidence from the Paris meeting, describing it a meeting of "second rate players" while the there was no progress on the issues either. These are: the formation of a national unity government, the presidential election (to find a successor to pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud) and the reform of the electoral law. Unstated was the issue of the Hariri tribunal. Indeed, what really emerges is that the meeting served to reinforce the West's intentions for Lebanon (and Syria) through continued support of Siniora and it would be surprising if any follow-up sessions shall come out of the July 14 Paris meeting. Indeed there also rumors that there is a plan to secure the UN''s authorization to alter the role of the international force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) such that they would be deployed along the Syrian-Lebanese border rather than the Lebanese-Israeli one as they are now. The augury is not good. Peace appears to be fading on the horizon. 

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