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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: 083 - (29/11/10)

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon and a Possible Deterioration of Syro-Iranian Relations
As Lebanon and the Middle East grow wearier over the outcome of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is expected to indict senior members of Hezbollah for the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, Syria is boasting a renewed regional influence. The United States, after invading Iraq in 2003, tried to reduce Syria’s regional influence. In Lebanon, Syria’s traditional ‘backyard’, this meant having to draw Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni who came to power thanks to Syrian influence, away from Syria. Saudi Arabia was an important pawn in this process. Hariri was a close friend of the Saudi monarchy, which doubtless played an important role in securing the Lebanese government’s shift away from Syria. In 2005, and 2006, it seemed that Syria was succumbing to the pressure; it had been forced to withdraw 10,000 troops from Lebanon and saw itself increasingly under threat of a possible US attack. The Bush administration, under considerable pressure from neo-conservative ideologues, reduced diplomatic ties, as did Saudi Arabia, and applied sanctions that included the inclusion of Syria as a member in the dubious ‘axis of evil’ club. The Hariri murder produced a strong anti-Syrian political coalition headed by Hariri’s own son, Saad, who is now prime minister.

Saad Hariri himself, is now under strong pressure to undo all of the past five years long effort to isolate Syria; Hariri the son is not in a position to abide by the STL’s likely verdict against Hezbollah for the murder of his own father; to do so would be political suicide. Saudi Arabia, which advocated the prompt establishment of a court to investigate the assassination (though not necessarily the STL), has been forced to compromise with Syria over the STL and the Hariri investigation. Saudi Arabia has now used its considerable power to postpone the STL’s indictment until March 2011. Hezbollah, wants the STL to be cancelled outright, and Hariri is under pressure from the Saudis and Hezbollah allies to make a formal U-turn on the tribunal. The Lebanese parliament itself could help Hariri save face by withdrawing support for the STL, because the STL was approved by prime minister Fouad Seniora, not parliament. Meanwhile, the political fragility in Lebanon and the STL demonstrated that Syria has fully re-emerged from isolation and that it exerts considerable influence in the Middle East. Its relationship with the Obama administration has been at a low point over the past months, as the United States has been unable to pull Syria completely away from Iran, nor yet Hamas or Hezbollah and because of the weak and failing Middle East peace negotiations. Nevertheless, Syria has demonstrated that it cannot be ignored. President Asad played an important role in helping Iraq find its own political compromise after a seven months long impasse following the March elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shunned an invitation from King Abdallah to Riyadh, but visited Damascus instead for talks on forming a government.

What does this mean for Syrian-American relations?
While relations between Syria and the United States are still blocked by some Bush era sanctions, what Syria really wants from Washington is a more intense mediation between itself and Israel over the Golan. Clearly, the Syrian economy would also benefit from the withdrawal of US sanctions, but Syria has been benefiting from more investment by Gulf States and Turkey. Although Syria now enjoys significant regional prestige, president Asad fully understands that the road to the Golan passes through Washington. Nevertheless, the STL has been a political boomerang. It was established to isolate Syria even as it has resulted in Syria fully regaining its position of influence in Lebanon. No less important is the fact that while Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel in the July-August war of 2006 made it convenient for Syria to use its relationship with the movement to start resuming its regional importance, president Asad has used Hezbollah as a kind of bargaining chip.

Damascus has effectively used the Shiite movement to establish better relations with Saudi Arabia, which has no interest in seeing another civil war in Lebanon. Indeed, Syria – already exonerated by the STL for responsibility of the Hariri assassination - and Saudi Arabia have been actively mediating with the Lebanese government to ensure that the STL’s indictments of Hezbollah will be rejected, according to the Lebanese newspaper as-Safir. The plan, therefore, aims for Lebanon to absorb the news of the indictments, maintain calm, avoid a collapse of the government in which Hezbollah has more than one minister and ultimately to transfer any pending charges away from the STL and back into Lebanon. The plan also establishes that Hariri will hold formal talks with the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, to diffuse the tensions deriving from the accusations. The risk for the Lebanese government is that a recalcitrant Hezbollah could attempt to increase their control over Lebanon, drawing attention from Israel. Moreover, a recent visit by Iran’s president Ahmadinejad to Lebanon – and a follow up visit by prime minister Saad Hariri to Tehran in late November – served as a warning that Iran would prefer to deal with Lebanon directly.

Had Syria and Saudi Arabia failed to negotiate a deal with Hariri over the STL and Hezbollah, it would have been an invitation for even greater Iranian involvement. As for Syria itself, the Hezbollah-STL affair has shown regional powers such as Saudi Arabia that president Asad maintains sufficient independence from Iran that he will not simply allow Lebanon to be manipulated by Iran (and Hezbollah) – whose regional hegemony plans would be best served by more tension in Lebanon. Moreover, Damascus’s relations with Tehran and Hezbollah have also been hurt by allegations that Iran has tried to transfer weapons and explosives to Hezbollah by way of Syria, putting Damascus at risk, especially as far as its relations with Washington are concerned. If there are questions about Syria’s relations with Iran, Syria and Kuwait have been strengthening their own political and economic ties. Kuwait has been one of the main investors in the Syrian tourism and construction sector and In February, president Asad is scheduled to hold high-level talks with the emir of Kuwait, al-Sabah to discuss political and regional issues – such as Israel.

Meanwhile in Korea
If it is true that Syria’s relations with Iran are deteriorating (and not because of external pressure, but because of an actual divergence of self interests), the timing for the shift is all the more appropriate as news of North Korea’s attack on south Korean territory in mid-November has rebounded to the Middle East. Israel has treated the North Korean attack as an example of what it fears an increasingly intransigent Iran might attempt if it is allowed to pursue its nuclear technology plans. Israel fears that Tehran could be as bold as Pyongyang, which is itself suspected of having exported missile technology to Iran, seeing as some of the recent long-range missiles deployed by the Islamic Republic, the Shihab, Sajil and upgraded Scuds are based on North Korean designs. North Korea also serves as an example that the deals signed by ‘rogue’ states are worthless and that Iran would continue to pursue nuclear arms capability regardless of any treaty or accord it might sign – like North Korea. The ultra-nationalist Israeli minister of foreign affairs was quick to exploit the incident asking if “the international community is unable to stop, to control this demented regime”, how could it hope to deal with Iran? By Iran, presumably, the Israeli foreign minister was also implying Iran’s proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, which would feel emboldened to act against Israel by a powerful Iran. If Israel has any chance of resuming indirect talks over the Golan with American support, it must show some willingness to loosen its ties to Iran, a process that has apparently begun with the STL.   


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