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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: 039 - (25/01/07)

The Elusive Quest 
Perhaps not surprisingly, president Bush has ignored the suggestions of the Iraq Study Group, preferring to launch yet another attempt to crush the Iraqi insurgency instead of finding ways to negotiate with Syria and Iran. In fact, while the Senate and Congress debate the so called 'surge' plan, involving the deployment of some 21,000 extra troops in Iraq, the United States has already raised the stakes by raiding two bases of the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIIRI) - a pro-Iranian party led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim - and arresting five Iranian diplomats at Tehran's consulate in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. This has inevitably increased tensions between the government of al-Maliki and Washington, as the former has been seeking better relations with Tehran and Damascus. In mid-January, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani visited Damascus where it was decided to reopen the Kirkuk-Baniyas oil pipeline. Meanwhile, having jettisoned the Baker-Hamilton plan, it appears that the seven or eight brigades that are expected to make up the 'bulge' in Iraq shall largely be deployed in communication defense and in installing hundreds of anti-missile batteries (Patriot II) suggesting the United States expects possible counterattacks from other countries as part of a wider regional conflict. 

The troop surge in Iraq appears to be facing resistance at the Senate and in Congress; nevertheless, both houses of government would be willing to engage Iran in an effort to stop its alleged plans to build a nuclear weapon. Israel's role is crucial of course. The United States are unlikely to attack Iran first, whereas Israel has been threatening an 'Osirak' style raid against Iranian nuclear facilities. Should Iran react vigorously as threatened and retaliate as should be expected, to such an attack (Iraq did not in 1981), it would virtually guarantee a strong US reaction, which could then result in a wider regional war. The United States, during Condoleeza Rice's latest trip to the Middle East, is believed to have built up support from conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia for a regional anti-Iranian coalition - of the sort that was established in the early 1980's. Such a coalition would, by implication, also oppose Hezbollah and Hamas, which would leave Syria as the outsider. 

As the Iraq surge shows, the Bush administration has no intention of resuming talks with Syria along the lines recommended by the Iraq Study Group. Rather, the Bush 'team' continues to isolate Syria diplomatically - and may even be pondering regime change in Damascus - using Lebanon as the playing field, by supporting its political allies against the growing influence and demands of the Hezbollah led opposition (which as shown by the general strike of January 23 is gaining momentum against the administration of prime minister Fouad Siniora). The Iraq Study Group offered the United States a way of detaching Syria from Iran through re-engagement. Having been refused this route, Syria will no doubt continue to rely on Iran for support, including military support, implying that an attack on Iran could feasibly draw Syria into battle. If the Bush administration is, as one option, pondering regime change in Damascus - as suggested by the talks they've entertained over the past few years with Syrian dissident groups in exile - it is worth considering just how interested, or otherwise Israel would be in such a plan. The Iraqi example, and basic logic, would imply that Israeli officials would be more than a little concerned at having an Iraqi style mess on their doorstep. Syrians, for their part, have probably learned that regime change in the Middle East is undesirable even maybe uncontainable, and apart from their implacable religious group, the Moslem Brotherhood, they are unlikely to enthusiastically support the demise of the al -Asad dictatorship - the execution of Saddam Hussein and the relentless chaos in Iraq could only have reinforced this view. Certainly, the execution of Saddam Hussein was something of a test for sectarian divisions in Syria. Sunni Syrians (the majority), were no doubt angered by the execution of the former Iraqi dictator, who was mocked by his Shiite executioners during his last moments of life. However, the Syrian government, careful not to hurt growing ties with the Iraqi government, favored a more muted reaction, limiting criticism to the fact that the hanging was carried out on the first day of the Aid-ul-Adha holiday, and for Washington's assent to the execution.

As for Bashar al-Asad, his best prospect now is to try to muddle through until the next US administration, when it appears, the notion of talks may resume, barring some unforeseen change of plan from Bush to adopt the Baker - Hamilton recommendations should the 'surge' in Iraq turn out to be another embarrassing disaster - an entirely possible outcome. Syria still has strong influence in Lebanon, and it can challenge the US or force it to come to some form of compromise by challenging the Siniora administration, even as it continues to push for talks with Israel, as it has done with some intensity since the end of the Israeli war on Hezbollah in summer 2006. The Israeli government could yet yield a surprise or two in 2007. Premier Olmert is under investigation for corruption, and while the cabinet includes the ultra-right wing Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister Amir Peretz has already shown a willingness to support peace talks with Syria, which could transform the US attitude entirely. 

As for Israeli- Syrian talks, there have been rumors, denied by both sides, of a secret meeting between Syrian and Israeli officials in Switzerland in mid-January as reported by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. Indiscretions about the meeting, which is said to have had some sort of US backing, hint that in exchange for Syrian support in resolving both the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and by pushing Hezbollah to exist uniquely as a political party, Israel would return the Golan to its pre-1967 boundaries, on the condition that the currently occupied Israeli Golan would be turned into a jointly controlled park (clearly giving Israel an added buffer zone). The agenda for the talks, said Ha'aretz, was prepared from 2004 to 2006. A European mediator in the talks is reported as noting that Israeli PM Olmert cancelled the talks and the initiative. 

In addition, Syria was engaged on two other diplomatic fronts in January, suggesting that it is still not as diplomatically isolated as the US would like; certainly, it has recovered some prestige after the war in Lebanon last summer in spite of the controversial investigation into the murder of Rafiq Hariri. Iran and Syria have offered the Iraqi government and its neighbors the idea of holding meeting of foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors in Baghdad. The meeting would try to diffuse the tensions and differences among regional states - such as those emerging from Saudi Arabia, which is very concerned about the rise of Shiite influence in the region. Such a meeting would also carve a role for Syria, at least in some Middle Eastern circles, of the desirability of having Syria and Iran involved in trying to resolve the crisis in Iraq. Syria was also a mediator in talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas' exiled chief Khaled Masha'al. While, they failed to produce the desired goal of establishing a national unity government in the Palestinian Territories, the two sides found areas of agreement. The meeting was nonetheless a diplomatic success for Damascus, as it took place thanks to intense Syrian mediation by Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa who held separate talks with Masha'al and Abbas. 

New Oil Exploration Wanted
In its continue effort to break from international isolation, Syria plans to offer new offshore and onshore blocks to international oil companies, including American, Canadian and British firms according to a January 12 announcement from the Syrian oil ministry. The offer suggests that, apart from the intense regional diplomatic activity, Syria may also be planning to open the economy further in 2007. Syria said it would not limit the tender bids to any particular country and will also offer it to countries like the U.S., Canada - it is very interested in Canadian bids and intends to set up a Canada Syria Business Council - and the U.K. Syria's oil production has dropped since a peak in the mid-90's. In 2006, Syria produced some 400,000 bpd, as compared to 600,000 bpd in 1996.

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