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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 21,517 21,900  19,500 67
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 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: 038 - (02/01/07)

To Engage or Not to Engage?
Syria continues to be at the heart of a 'Shakespearean' debate in the West as to whether or not to engage Syria (and Iran) in a serious manner to try to curb the sectarian violence in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) report suggested as much, urging the US to change its policy in Iraq while also engaging Damascus and Tehran in Iraqi affairs. Syrian authorities have welcomed the ISG report, considering the suggestions to offer a process to reduce American meddling in the Middle East. However, the ISG report has failed to make inroads in White House, and President Bush has already defied one of the main ISG prescriptions, which recommends reducing the number of troops in Iraq. Bush said he would send more troops, as he still dreams that a military victory is possible. The newly elected Democratic led House and Senate appear, for the time being, unwilling to consider impeaching the president, even while many have welcomed the ISG report. Surely one item of contention is the fact that the report also indicates that the US should make a far stronger diplomatic effort to settle the Middle East conflict, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the Syrian-Israeli dispute over the Golan Heights. Such suggestions are still impractical given the neo-conservative outlook that has taken over American foreign policy and the White House in particular. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, diplomatic openings toward Syria preceded the ISG report. In 

In October 2006, British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent a special envoy to Damascus to meet Bashar al-Asad, proposing Syria's cooperation on five issues, said the al-Hayat including cooperation in Iraq and support for the al-Fatah party in Palestine. 

In November, Syria re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq, sending positive signals to the West. Moreover, Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzouk, in Damascus, announced that the movement had accepted a new independent candidate, Dr Mohammad al-Shabir, who is close to Hamas but not an official member, as the new prime minister. He would replace Haniyya in a move that also intended to meet Western demands. It is clear that t Damascus influenced Hamas to accept the change. The price for Syrian cooperation is to allow it a greater hand in Lebanon and ostensibly a push for a Middle East peace conference that would put the Golan on the negotiating table. It should be noted that Syria started to regain influence, emerging as a necessary negotiating party, in the aftermath of the war that Israel launched against Hezbollah last summer. Syria adopted Hezbollah's victory (or Israel's loss depending on the perspective) as its own. Syria's leadership therefore, is anxious to bank some political gains in view of its current position of strength. Since the end of the war in August, Syria has made frequent calls to hold peace negotiations with Israel. In December, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem indicated that Damascus is ready to talk to Israel "with no precondition". Previously Syria had typically demanded Israel's readiness to make territorial concessions before any talks began.

Israel Could Be Persuaded to Talk to Syria.
Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has not shown any intention, publicly at least, to even consider holding talks with Syria, even as some members of his cabinet have expressed support for such an initiative - defense minister Amir Peretz for instance. In the United States, the New York based 'Jewish Week' published a critical letter defying the hard-line policy of president Bush and the neo-conservative camp from Jack Avital (a friend of Ariel Sharon), leader of the US based Syrian-Jewish community, Likud supporter and president of the Sephardic National Alliance. Avital urges the US and Israel to take advantage of Syria's willingness to talk. Avital compares Olmert's rejection of talks to Golda Meir's refusal to hold talks with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was proposing peace talks, in 1972. This failure forced Sadat to launch what is now known as the Yom Kippur war in 1973. That war ultimately yielded the Camp David peace talks in 1979. Avital would clearly prefer to reach peace without the need for additional bloodshed. Nevertheless, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Bush is believed to have 'forbidden' the Israeli government from accepting a resumption of talks with Syria, talks over the restitution of the Golan that had started at the height of the peace process with Prime Minister Rabin. The paper also suggested that the foreign affairs minister Tipzi Livni and the interior minister, Avi Dichter would be willing to talk to Syria and it is well known that defense minister Amir Peretz leads the 'pro-talks' camp in the Israeli cabinet. These ministers are curious about the Syrian proposal as a way to establish what Syrian demands are - beyond the Golan and what Israel might be able to gain. 

Presumably, Israel would demand that Syria weaken its ties to Tehran; in fact, should Syria start to reduce these ties, the pro-negotiation camp in Israel would gain greater momentum. Olmert has indicated as much. In an interview with the Italian daily 'La Repubblica' Bashar al-Asad reiterated his desire to hold direct negotiations with Israel to end their state of war and fully normalize relations. Olmert replied to Asad's comments in the interview, saying that he would not consider talks with Damascus until and unless it first renounced terrorism and halted its support of Hamas and Hezbollah. The anti-Syria camp in the US is smaller following wide acceptance of the suggestions in the ISG report; it now comprises only Bush, Cheney and the 'neocons' who had apparently urged Israel to attack Syria last summer as part of their campaign against Lebanon. Meyrav Wurmser, who was one of the writers (others included Richard Perle and Douglas Feith) of the 1996 paper "A Clean Break" for then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu which called for overthrowing Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in order to start destabilizing Syria, has given interviews indicating that the neo-conservatives thought Israel should have attacked Syria last summer, instead of Hezbollah. 

By targeting Syria, she suggested, Israel would have indirectly also targeted Iran at the strategic level. There are also reports that many close to the Bush-Cheney camp let the Israeli leadership understand that Washington would not have objected if Israel chose to extend the war into Syria. According to the NY Times, noted neo-cons such as Wurmser and Elliot Abrams actually blocked an initiative by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice for Washington to talk to Syria to try to stop the fighting in Lebanon at the very start of the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah. The US hardliners oppose talks to Syria, now blaming the Asad regime of trying to regain its influence in Lebanon by subverting the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and providing support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. As the 'engage or not engage' dilemma over Syria continues in Washington, Syria whose leadership has shown itself to be ever more pragmatic in recent months, will likely start to re-consider aspects of its relationship to Iran (where municipal elections - considered a barometer for the popularity of the president - have resulted in a win of the conservative-moderate pro-Rafsanjani camp) in order to bring Damascus closer into line with those more favourable presidential advisors in Washington. This, the nature of the Iranian relationship and any timing of changes thereto must be the big decision under consideration in Damascus

So far, the ISG report has failed to impress Bush, who has called for more troops to be sent to Iraq, countering the ISG report at the core. But the dwindling numbers of neo-conservative in positions of influence and the Democratic controlled Capitol suggests that this policy will meet strong objection, particularly as Iraq's violence shows no signs of abating. The Iraq policy is primarily under review and within whatever decisions are taken there, must determine whether the ISG recommendations on Syria are to be accepted or ignored.

The 'talk to Syria' card will eventually have to be played, although it is not clear what Syria, a powerfully secular administration without strong Sunni links to Iraq and even less to Iraq's Shi-ites, can do to get the US out of the Iraq quagmire. Nevertheless, if withdrawal of US troops in IRAQ is to avoid a regional Sunni-Shia conflagration as the price of American meddling in the middle-east, the clear-cut secular, yet wholly arab nature of Syria, would be a key element in damping down the worst excesses of the sectarian divide.

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