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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


Update No: 042 - (30/04/07)

Despite Bush’s Best Efforts, Syria is not Isolated
Even as the United States is putting pressure on the world to isolate Syria diplomatically, there is a growing sense that the isolation rhetoric, and the reasons given for it - from supporting Siniora’s government in Lebanon to defending Israel- has no longer any bite. In March, the newly elected US Speaker of the House – third in line to the president, Nancy Pelosi, and representative Tom Lantos made a highly publicized visit to Damascus where they met president Bashir al-Asad. Nancy Pelosi made the ‘de-rigueur’ remarks about US concerns about fighters crossing the Iraq-Syria border “to the determent of the Iraqi people and our soldiers,” and other thorny issues such as Israel, the return of the captured Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and the Hariri investigation. However, the very act of visiting Syria and meeting the president was very important for Syria and its re-emerging diplomatic acceptance. The visit all but signalled the end of the Western policy of isolating Syria that took on full force after the Syrian government was named the primary suspect in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. 

From an internal American political perspective, Pelosi’s visit would suggest that the isolated party is not so much Bashir al-Asad, as it is George Bush. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) suggestions to engage Syria are being applied, in spite of the Bush administration’s reluctance. Another visiting American official, congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican, member of the House Committee on Intelligence, also met president Asad, looking for ways to improve relations between the United States and Syria. As if to highlight who is actually being isolated, Issa was quoted as saying "It is difficult to isolate Syria which is pivotal to finding solutions to all issues in the region”. Outside the immediate circle at the White House, there is the sense that Syria is being regarded more and more as part of the solution to the wider Middle East problem, rather than part of the problem. As a further indication, even US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, who was once more than happy to blame Syria for extra-national political murder and for aiding terrorism in Iraq, is rumoured to be willing to meet Syrian affairs minister Walid Muallem at the forthcoming Iraq conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to discuss ways in which Syria could help curb the violence in Iraq. For his part, Muallem has implied in a series of meetings with western counterparts, including the European Union foreign policy officer, Javier Solana, that Syria’s cooperation in Iraq would be tied to American support for Syria’s efforts to peacefully regain the Golan Heights. 

Saudi Arabia’s Courtship?
Indeed, Syria’s diplomatic importance in the region has risen as Iraq continues spiralling downward in sectarian strife, dealing a major blow to neoconservative agendas of democratization by force and liberation wars. Israel’s unexpected military failure in the 2006 war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, proved to be the final blow to the policy of isolating Syria, as the Hezbollah’s inevitable gain from this, bolstered Asad’s regional influence. There have even been suggestions that concern over Iran’s nuclear program has also benefited Damascus, as this has resulted in efforts to court Damascus back into the Arab mainstream to further isolate Teheran. A clear indication of Syria’s gradual rapprochement with the Arab mainstream, is the improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia, which was one of the main Arab powers to back the isolation of Syria after the murder of Rafiq Hariri (and the related suspicions of Syrian involvement), who was a close friend of the Saudi royal family. The Mecca agreement that led to the formation of the Palestinian government of national unity between Hamas and Fatah was brokered by the Saudi King Abdullah, but Damascus was crucial in pushing Hamas and Fatah to reach an agreement. Syria was instrumental in ensuring that Hamas, whose leader Khaled Meshaal lives in Damascus, would agree to the deal. Hamas, after all, was the legitimate winner of the 2006 Palestinian elections and had most to lose. Syria’s exhortation of Hamas may be considered as a move in favour of Israel and certainly as a move in favour of a long term Middle East peace initiative. In addition, the vacuum of Arab, Sunni, power in the Middle East left by the demise of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, which has tipped in favour of Iran (and the Shi’a), has forced Saudi Arabia to improve ties with Syria. The Mecca accord was a fruitful first step. The Arab League meeting in Riyadh last March bolstered Saudi-Syrian relations even further. King Abdullah criticized the US invasion of Iraq and advocated that Syria should be engaged in devising a new Iraq policy. In order to promote greater Arab unity, also as an attempt to wrest the balance of power in the region away from Iran, Saudi Arabia has become very active in proposing an Arab peace initiative with Israel. Saudi Arabia, realizes that if Syria, Palestine and Israel could reach a peace agreement – which would imply the return of the Golan – Syria would no longer find the alliance with Iran useful. 

It might be said that not only has the United States failed to turn Syria into a pariah, but regional powers are now vying for Syria’s favour to the benefit of each others economy. The Saudi effort to drive a wedge between Teheran and Damascus includes the tool of investment. One very visible example of Saudi investment in Damascus is the Four Seasons hotel that opened in 2006 and which is owned by the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin-Talal. Iran has also invested in Syrian industry, including the automobile sector, launching the Sham, an Iranian car built in Syria. Syria also signed a free-trade agreement with Turkey and has even received considerable investment from Lebanon in the banking sector, which was privatised in 2005. Syria can also rely on hydrocarbon resources as a source of revenue, and if Western companies are shy to come forward with big projects – though some are present – India has signed a deal with Syria to explore, produce and refine petroleum products. The state run Indian Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) offered to assist the Syrian Petroleum Company (SPC) to increase extraction of heavy oil through proprietary company techniques.

Despite the Diplomacy, Rumours of War Persist
The recent diplomatic initiatives have not managed to quell rumours of a potential military confrontation between Israel and Syria next summer. Both Syria and Israel are accusing each other of preparing for a war which might be sparked in the wider Middle East context. The scenario would see Israel respond to Syrian assistance to Hezbollah or other Palestinian groups leading to a military response from Syria. In other words, Israel is envisaging a possible renewed attack against Hezbollah, which would necessarily confront Syria directly, unlike the war launched in the summer of 2006. In addition, despite the conciliatory tones at the recent Arab League summit in Riyadh, where the resumption of the peace process with Israel was widely discussed, the United States is said to be advising Israel (or perhaps the other way around?) not to hold talks with Syria, because these would inevitably end Syria’s international isolation and hurt the government of Fouad Siniora in Lebanon. Israeli analysts have suggested that Syria is already preparing for war, noting that the Syrian army is increasing its battle readiness, while Syria has also been acquiring more munitions and wepaons systems form Iran. 

In recent years, Syria also bought anti-tank missiles from Russia, as well as anti-aircraft missiles. Of course, the focus and purpose of any Syrian attack on Israel would be to regain control of the Golan, as Isrealis say that Syria’s rhetoric over the region often includes the word ‘resistance’, which Tel Aviv interprets as a willingness to go to ‘war’. 
Moreover, Israeli observers’ perception that Syria is preparing for a fight also reflect concerns that Iran will have to be engaged, either by the United States or by Israel itself. A pre-emptive strike by Israel against Iran, modelled from Israel's own 1982 bomb attack on the Iraqi nuclear power plant of Osirak, has not been excluded. In the United States, even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that military force should be entertained as a last resort. Ms. Clinton made the remarks to the National Democratic Jewish Council. Syria would inevitably be drawn in a direct struggle with Israel, should a preemptive strike be launched against Iran, given the mutual defence agreement that Damascus has with Teheran. There is also the issue of Syrian support for Hezbollah, which remains, as ever, a potential motive for an Israeli strike against Syria. Israel told visiting UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon that Syria has been re-supplying Hezbollah with missiles through the Syrian border, which would be a breach of the UN Resolution that ended last summer’s war. Syria neither denied nor confirmed the accusation, but noted that Israel surveillance aircraft themselves infringed Resolution 1701 by flying over Lebanon. 

Common Sense Says No War
So much for talk of war! It cannot be excluded that such wartalk as described, is being used as a tool by those US and Israeli interests that seek to raise temperatures in order to continue with Syria’s isolation. Both Syrian and Israeli ministers have dismissed any intentions of going to war. We believe them. Common sense says that Syria has no military answer to the IAF which dominates the whole region. Unlike the irregular Hezbollah fighters seeking to draw Israeli troops into the more evenly balanced arena of street fighting, the Syrian military presents such a large conventional target for sophisticated weaponry of a kind that military planners in these times, can only dream about. Besides, Syria would hardly initiate hostilities when it is clearly making progress on various diplomatic fronts, as we describe. 
Israel is beset with a difficult political situation at home and after the massive down-turn in popularity the government there sustained, after the military disappointments of the 2006 Lebanon fighting, the last thing any Israeli government now needs is another military adventure, particularly without a specific ‘war-worthy’ cause. Israel is a democracy and its military is largely a citizen army. The voters accept sacrifice for the survival of the state of Israel, but look askance on any waste of its young peoples lives, for lesser causes. 
We are drawn to the conclusion that war, unless these circumstances radically change, could only be a diversionary last throw by a White House humiliated in Iraq, coercing Israel to that end. It is not unthinkable, but we have not reached any such point yet.

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