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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: 050 - (28/03/08)

Snubbing Syria 
As the third anniversary of Syria’s pullout from Lebanon approaches, Syria continues to pay the inevitable price for its involvement in that country. Authorized by the Arab League, Syria entered Lebanon shortly after the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The Lebanese war ended in 1990, but Syria felt it had to safeguard its national interest and stayed, ostensibly at the request of the Lebanese government, to help maintain stability. Ever since Syria retreated from Lebanon, the United States and some of its regional and European allies have been demanding that Syria ‘leave Lebanon alone’; to stop meddling in its affairs. Now, the United States, seemingly unaware of the contradiction, is insisting that Syria influence an important Lebanese party, Hezbollah, which is friendly to it, to vote for a president and government that oppose the latter party’s own interest and political survival. Indeed, for Syria to actually “leave Lebanon alone” it should not put any pressure whatsoever on any political group. Syria has reiterated its willingness to establish full diplomatic relationships, including opening of embassies, provided the current Lebanese government ceases to blame Syria for all of Lebanon’s problems. It has proven this by inviting the Lebanese prime minister to intercede with the Lebanese opposition in favor of appointing General. Suleiman as president. For Lebanon to be truly independent, this decision is up to the opposition alone. 

Of course, Syria also has its own security concerns and has good reason to fear that Lebanon might serve as a ‘base’ from which to attack Syria, directly or indirectly by drawing Syria into a potential Lebanese civil conflict. In early march, the US navy deployed three military ships, including the USS Cole, and an amphibious assault ship, to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in a show of strength, clearly aimed against Syria and the Lebanese opposition. The presence of these ships can only be a ‘not so veiled’ warning to Syria that if it does not comply with US demands, it could face military consequences. The United States has not offered any substantial political bargain, in fact, in exchange for Syria’s cooperation. In exchange for Syria’s cooperation against Iraq in the first Gulf War, 1990-1991, the US offered Syria a potential peace deal with Israel and the return of the Golan. There is no such offer on the table now, or at least no concrete offer; the Annapolis conference was just a mirage whose already shaky credibility has been blown apart by Israel’s recent rampage in Gaza. As long as the US refuses to put pressure on Israel to discuss the Golan, there is little it can do to persuade Syria to help it achieve its own strategic objectives. On the contrary, the US and its regional allies are trying to undermine Syria’s credibility further by compromising the success of the Arab League summit, before it has even begun. 

Failed Summit
Saudi Arabia is sending a small delegation headed by the kingdom’s representative to the League. King Abdullah said he would not attend; neither would Egypt’s president Mubarak. US vice-president Dick Cheney’s visit to Saudi Arabia, no doubt, ‘helped’ King Abdullah reach his decision. The spokesman for the US State Department, Sean McCormack, had already ‘suggested’ that the United States’ Arab allies “keep in mind the role that Syria has played so far to impede the Lebanese electoral process and to go ahead to nominate the president”. King Abdullah’s failure to attend the Summit would officially confirm the deteriorating relationship between Syria and Saudi Arabia. The real concern for Syria, apart from having to acknowledge a failure of the Summit itself, is a weakening of the Arab position that establishes a normalization of diplomatic relations between the Arab states and Israel only in exchange of Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian Territories and the Golan. Ironically, this plan was launched by Saudi Arabia in 2002. Saudi Arabia’s monarch backs the government of Fouad Siniora in Lebanon and he has refused to attend, ostensibly, because Syria continues to maintain close ties to Hezbollah. This is a contradiction, as noted above, given that the US wants Syria to use this very influence to bring about the ‘desired’ political outcome in Lebanon. Yet Syria has shown that it can withstand intense diplomatic pressure; the West has underestimated the ability of Bashar al-Asad’s ability to survive, a task that the United States and Israel have made easier through colossal mistakes like the war on Iraq and the assault on Lebanon. 

And still it survives
Asad has proven to be a tough negotiator; having given managed to give little away, even while clearly demonstrating a willingness to hold serious talks. This has improved his standing at home and kept the Ba’athist establishment happy. While diplomatic isolation has strengthened Asad, the war in neighboring Iraq has been a huge burden for ordinary Syrians, who are being drawn into the effects of that quagmire. US vice president Cheney in his recent tour of the Arab states, criticised Syria for continuing to send suiicidal jihadists across their frontiers into Iraq, making no mention of a recent US survey showing that more than 70% of these came from US ally Saudi Arabia, whose desert frontier is just as long and as porous. 

Fearing that their country could become a ‘second Iraq’, many Syrians remain firm in their support for Asad. Nowhere is this truer than among Christians, ironically, who blame Bush and aggressive American policies in the Middle East for the difficulties their community is facing in Iraq. The recent kidnapping and murder of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Monsignor Faraj Rahho, has raised fears among Syrian Christians who are finding the stability of the Syrian regime comforting. In other words, the Iraq war and its effects have had the opposite effect; rather than setting off a wave of ‘pro-democracy’ protests, it has strengthened dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, (virtually all Arab states), even among communities having close cultural ties to the West. Syria suffers economic, social and security problems as 1.5 million Iraqis, refugees from their ‘liberated’ country have come to look for a better life in Syria. Syria’s social infrastructure is struggling to cope with the burden of having to accommodate a sudden influx of people in the school and healthcare system. The rapidly increasing population has also contributed to inflation and people have to confront unprecedented living costs. The minister of the economy, Amr Lutfi, said that inflation reached 20% in 2007. The majority of Syrian workers are struggling, while most Iraqis survive solely on the basis of charity; there has also a growing problem with prostitution as many Iraqi women forced to survive and needing to eat and feed their children without any employment, are trying to cope. 

Iran is helping to soften some of the economic difficulties. The Iraqi war and the resulting insecurity in many Shiite pilgrimage centers like Najaf and Karbala has also raised the appeal of Syrian sanctuaries and holy places venerated by Shiites, drawing more Iranians to visit Syria. The Iranians bring money and frequent the many markets and suqs associated with the places of worship; Syrian merchants are happy and the increased flow of tourists is helping to cement good relations between Syria and Iran. The alliance between Damascus and Tehran is getting stronger at the economic, religious, social and political level. Iran has invested over USD 1.5 billion in Syria in 2007 and supplies the country with much of its energy needs. Iran has also built automobile plants, while its beverage company, Zam Zam, will soon open a factory in Syria. Iran and Venezuela have also reached an agreement to build a Syrian refinery capable of handling 150,000 barrels of crude per day. Whereas, Washington apparently thought it could break Syria through political and economic sanctions, Asad has been able to out-maneuver the strategy of the United States, finding alternatives to Bush, and continues to survive. Nevertheless, as Syria’s isolation continues, it will be pushed closer to Teheran; this suggests that any attack against Iran would inevitably draw Syria into the resulting conflict. 

Last September’s unexplained Israeli raid against an alleged nuclear facility in northern Syria implied that more than possible, such a war is probable, were it not for the end of this US administration being just over the horizon. Even that does not guarantee that it will not happen, although the combined US intelligence report on Iran’s nuclear capacity of last December and Democratic control of the Congress militates against it. 

The provocations are already coming. The Israeli media has accused Hezbollah of joining Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army to fight against US troops in Basra in the recent clashes there. The reports imply that the Hezbollah fighters are not acting independently and that they are being guided by the movement’s leadership in Beirut. This is a clear attempt to create a scenario to provoke another war against Lebanon. An Israeli warship violated Lebanese territorial waters and was intercepted by the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL), while Syria has added troops near its border with Lebanon, as speculations of another Israeli attack on Lebanon rise.

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