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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: 049 - (28/02/08)

A Prelude to War?
Lebanon appears to be unable or unwilling, to resolve its political crisis; parliament has not yet agreed on a president and rumors of an impending civil war abound. The risk of civil war certainly exists so long as the pro-American March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri and the Shiite-Christian opposition led by Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah fail to hold meaningful talks; nevertheless, as tense as this situation maybe, there is an even greater risk of war brewing in the south. Tension at the Lebanese - Israeli border has risen after the murder in early February of Hezbollah's military commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. It is difficult to discount the likely involvement of Israel's Mossad secret service in the murder. The Israeli newspaper Maariv suggested as much, noting that while Israel denied responsibility "…the brilliant execution of the attack was characteristic of the Mossad". The Financial Times quoted another Israeli commentator implying that the assassination of Mughniyeh, who was praised for his operational ability, is a very tough blow for Hezbollah. The population of southern Lebanon is probably already preparing for a second round of the offensive that Israel launched in the summer of 2006. Meanwhile, the German magazine 'Der Spiegel' hinted that the Israeli government would soon be declaring Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser - the two Israeli soldiers that were captured along the Israeli-Lebanese border by Hezbollah in July 2006 serving as the excuse for the Israeli attack - to be dead. This would leave the Israeli government 'free' to attack Lebanon again to 'finish the job'. 

The official Israeli feeling at the end of the 2006 war was that it had failed to destroy its main targets, while having to absorb the embarrassment of having lost to Hezbollah. In 2008, Israel appears to have organized an assassination in hopes of provoking Hezbollah to retaliate and providing a pretext for Israel to 'finish the job'. In 2008, Lebanon is weaker politically than it was two years ago. The impasse over the presidential nomination is merely the symbol of much deeper uncertainty about Lebanon's future. There is a sense that an Israeli attack in the near future could prompt Hezbollah's Lebanese rivals, as hinted in a speech on the anniversary of Rafiq Hariri's murder by Walid Jumblatt of the March 14 coalition, to attack Hezbollah. In other words the current situation suggests a situation closer in scope to 1982 than 2006 - though at that time the PLO was the main target (Hezbollah did not exist yet). 

Syria Pulled In
Therefore, even as Syria was not directly engaged in the 2006 war, it faces a good probability of being dragged into the ominous situation that is developing in Lebanon. Indeed, there is the potential for Iran to become involved as well, as Israel could use the growing tensions as an excuse to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. Despite a well publicized US intelligence report to the contrary, Israeli officials and their friends in the US government and media continue to raise the specter of a nuclear armed Iran. Israeli prime minister Olmert insisted as much during a recent visit to Germany. The Syrian security services have arrested 'civilian' Palestinians, as the main suspects for Mughniyeh's murder, who must have been well organized and informed because the Hezbollah military commander has arrived in Syria just one day earlier. A reconstruction based on the available evidence suggests that the murder was an Israeli operation with the aid of Arab collaborationists - perhaps people close to Fatah, who object to Syria's backing of Hamas. Interestingly, even as the United States and Israel are eager to call attention to Syria's ties to Iran, Syria has insisted that it alone is conducting the investigation into Mughniyeh's murder, denying rumors that Iran was participating. 

Arab League Summit 
Meanwhile, the Arab League, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are continuing their efforts to resolve the presidential crisis in Lebanon. There is the risk that the pro-march 14 Coalition powers, including the United States, might 'commandeer' the electoral process, electing a president with a basic majority rather then the constitutionally required 2/3ds majority. This would inevitably raise the tension and the likelihood of an armed clash with the opposition forces - and Syria. Should Israel decide to challenge Hezbollah once again, it may opt for a different approach. Perhaps the as yet unexplained bombing of a military facility in the Syrian desert last September could have been the rehearsal for a much more ambitious plan. The logic of the strategy would be to stop Iranian supplies to Hezbollah, before they even reach Lebanon, while also weakening Hamas and other Palestinian groups, whose leadership often find refuge in Damascus - though the Mughniyeh murder might suggest otherwise. This strategy would be akin to forcing Hezbollah to fight on two fronts, as it deals with a tense internal situation while having to face Israel without Iranian assistance. The series of car bombings that have plagued Beirut over the past three years targeting March 14 coalition members and with a knee-jerk inevitability blamed on Syria, have played no small part in helping to fracture Lebanon. 

The growing tension in Lebanon has also strained relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, even as both countries appeared to be on a reconciliation course since the Arab League summit of 2007. Indeed, that summit in Riyadh had been described as the most important in the past five years. The forthcoming summit in Damascus, which had the potential to further Syria's diplomatic standing, may be heading for a flop. The intractability of the Lebanese political situation, pitting Syria and Saudi Arabia on different sides suggests that a visit to Damascus by King Abdlallah is unlikely. This might well prompt other heads of state 'pro-West' Arab leaders not to attend, including Egypt's president Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdallah II. This would be a serious blow for Syria, which needs the Summit to formally confirm the course established at last year's event highlighted by the notion that a normalization of the Middle East situation might only be possible, if Israel retreats from all Arab lands, Palestine and Golan included. As always, Syria fears that a Middle East peace agreement in which it is excluded, would end all hopes of ever regaining the Golan Heights. 

Syria needs Arab states having close relations with Washington to confirm this line of thinking. Ironically, the lack of success of the Annapolis 'peace process,' would imply that all of the main diplomatic powers in the Arab world should be sceptical about even the much touted 'two-state' solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, rendering them more willing to consider the tougher Syrian stance. However, Riyadh insists that Damascus is not doing enough to resolve the political situation in Lebanon - whose resolution in favor of the March 14 coalition would bring Lebanon squarely into the pro-American fold, drawing it sharply away from Iran and Syria. Damascus considers this Saudi position as hostile, such that it has not yet invited Saudi Arabia to attend the Summit. Therefore, much depends on the election of a Lebanese president, though the evidence does not advise optimism in this regard. The March 14 Coalition is intent on disarming Hezbollah - and on establishing an international tribunal to investigate the murder of Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has raised the stakes, warning that the Mughniyeh's murder is part of a wider Israeli strategy to "prepare a new Israeli war against Lebanon".

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