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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: 079 - (28/07/10)

The Most Pragmatic State in the Middle East?

Niqab Ban

Even as fundamentalism continues to gain strength and consensus in the Middle East and in spite of an alliance with Iran and ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria has made it very clear that it is a secular state. There is very little room for religious fundamentalist ideas, and unlike Egypt, Syria will not co-opt, or pander to, known Islamist groups in order to secure political stability. Even as Europe continues to debate the merits (or the violations of human rights) of banning the use of the ‘niqab’, the veil that covers body and face, in public spaces, Syria has passed a law that bans the use of the niqab in all public and private universities. Many of the women wearing the austere outfits are Iraqi refugees or even Iranian visitors. The law was passed on July 18 – and just a few weeks away from the start of Ramadan, quietly; very few seemed to have noticed, but considering that fundamentalism continues to win hearts and minds, the new Syrian law is bold and it speaks of the wider pragmatism that guides Syrian policy. Syria has taken a decidedly countercurrent path in the region; it also seems to flow against Syria’s ‘garish’ relations with fundamentalist Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, not to mention the fact that it has also been cultivating closer ties with Saudi Arabia. Apart from representing a challenge to Syria’s home grown fundamentalists, the new law appears to be a signal to the Western powers to remind them that Syria does not have ideological interests and that it makes its foreign policy decisions on the basis of realistic concerns related to its survival.

The government itself and the media it controls have been quite mute about the law, seeing as the issue could prove very divisive; even so, the very willingness for the government of president al-Asad to take the bold step leaves no doubt as to where Syria stands in the region’s religious picture. Moreover, last June, the Syrian ministry of education had fired 1,200 schoolteachers, who wore the niqab during lessons. In fact, while Syria’s Baathist constitution establishes that the country’s president must be a Muslim, the clause was only included by then president Hafez al-Asad because of pressure from the Sunni business elite. The Baathist Syrian government has never tolerated excessive displays of ‘piety’. Apart from the violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, involving aerial bombardment and a few thousands casualties, some government special security agents raided university classrooms and pulled niqabs and even the more basic hijab veil (covering the hair) away from female students. President Bashir al-Asad, nevertheless, is practical enough to have his picture taken praying at the Grand Mosque in Damascus at all formal Islamic occasions, as did his father.

Official Islam is still an important instrument of power, and for an Alawi Shiite (the sect of the Asads and many in the Baath party leadership in Syria) leader it is all the more important. Much of the economic power in Damascus still resides with the Sunni elite descendant from the Ottoman power structures, it is politically expedient for the Alawi president to be seen and photographed praying at a Sunni mosque. The new anti-fundamentalist measures in Syria may also represent a response to the somewhat different nature of the threat in its neighbors. Syria, feels decidedly safer from international – i.e. American – threats now. It is during these times of apparent ‘calm’ that the government embarks in anti-fundamentalist campaigns. While, the United States has not yet brought Syria any advantage in the latter’s dispute with Israel over the Golan, diplomatic relations are relatively good and the United States and Syria are even sharing intelligence these days; gone are the fears of an attack by US forces in Iraq.

Different Regional Scenario
Gone are also the days of American threats, of the Bush-Cheney era, prompted by the allegations of Syrian involvement in Lebanon and of aiding and abetting insurgents in Iraq. In those tense years (2004-2008); the Syrian government put less pressure on the more zealous imams; certainly, it avoided imposing overly secular policies and it may have benefited from anti-American ‘jihad’ pushing clerics, to cement internal support in a fragile international situation. The Syrian president also exploited Hezbollah’s de-facto victory against Israel in 2006 to promote more unity and to crawl out of the position it to which it was relegated after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in Lebanon in February 2005. Having survived the external threats, Syria can now concentrate on confronting some potential internal ones. Syro-Lebanese relations have also been improving rapidly. Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri visited Damascus for the second time in July. More importantly, Hariri offered Syria a public apology for the suspicions concerning Syria’s role in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

Saad Hariri who led the chorus of accusations against Syria until a year ago conceded, “Mistakes were made vis-à-vis Syria”. Interestingly enough, Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who led a sharp anti-Syrian campaign in 2006, urged the central government in Beirut to improve ties with Damascus as much as possible. The special UN instituted Court that handled the investigation into the Hariri murder, is also expected to reach a ‘favorable’ verdict. After declaring Syria all but guilty, the special Court is expected to announce in September that Hariri and his bodyguards – along with a series of other high-level murders of journalists and politicians between 2006 and 2007 – were killed by rogue elements of Hezbollah – rogue being the operative word. Such a verdict could even please Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, seeing, as the suspects will be accused of having deviated from official practice. Nasrallah, for his part, is maintaining a partly confrontational stance, insisting that Israel is the culprit in the Hariri case. Prime minister Hariri’s public apology to Syria may well represent part of the price to be paid to facilitate Nasrallah’s acceptance – even if reluctant – of the forthcoming and leaked indictments of some Hezbollah people.

Having survived storms in its neighborhood, Syria is now courting the new emerging regional power, and the efforts to further ‘secularize’ society are aimed at wooing Turkey. No longer does Ankara accuse Syria of aiding Kurdish separatists, nor does Syria retort that Turkey limits the water supply from the Tigris and Euphrates into Syria. Turkey is becoming one of the fastest growing markets for Syrian products, while the ease of cross border visits thanks to the mutual elimination of visa requirements, is benefiting business on both sides of the border. Mutual trade has more than doubled from 2006 to 2009 (USD 800 million to USD 1.6 billion). Turkey and Iran are also increasing their business ties helping to cement Turkey’s role as a regional power. Young people are consuming more Turkish culture in the form of films and shopping. Turks have typically viewed Arabs as conservative and since they complain that Arabs are less liberal; the secularization effort should also be considered as part of a government effort to help cement closer ties to Turkey.



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