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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: 072 - (21/12/09)

2009: Overall not a Bad Year
Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus on December 19 highlights Syria’s emerging position in the Middle East. Having successfully achieved a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and the new Lebanese government of Saad Hariri are ready to establish closer links. Since 1940, every Lebanese prime minister traditionally makes a formal visit to Damascus shortly after being sworn-in; the lingering suspicions of Syrian involvement in the murder of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 (among Saad Hariri’s March 14 coalition party), have been set aside, depersonalized and left to the courts, allowing for the political process to continue. The rift that had emerged between the Lebanese government (not the opposition) and Syria in 2005 has now been replaced by a cautious resumption of formal relations. Hariri and Asad are expected to begin a new phase in Syro-Lebanese relations aimed at ensuring Lebanese stability, a prospect aided also by Hariri’s March 14 coalition reaching an understanding with the Hezbollah-led opposition, recognizing its role in the resistance against Israel. Of course, the Bush administration had done its best to isolate Syria and Lebanon, doing its best to find a Syrian mandate for the murder of Rafiq Hariri. It was only in the last months of the Bush presidency that the United States state department – less ideological than the presidency – realized the need for a more pragmatic approach with Syria, which could serve as an intermediary for talks with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

In 2009, Hariri had cordial talks with Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, having finally decided that neither the Israelis in 2006, nor the Sunni extremists in 2008 in what was a miniature civil war, were able to break Hezbollah. Since winning the June election, Hariri has agreed to all of Hezbollah’s crucial demands, even as far as military capability is concerned. Indeed, this understanding was also possible because of the continued failure of the United States in re-launching a credible Middle East peace process and in offering only mild approval for the resumption of Syro-Israeli talks over the Golan. To make matters more difficult, while secretary of state Clinton’s appeals to the Netanyahu government to end the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have lacked bite, the US Congress happily approved the sale of more sophisticated weapons to Israel. The perceived threat of a nuclear Iran only serves to boost the need for more military aid to Israel. Obama’s administration has declared its intention to support Israel’s ‘QME’ or qualitative military edge, which the Bush presidency actually tried to reduce in its last months. Some of the QME strategies include reductions in quality and quantity to the USD 20 billion arms deals made by the Bush administration with the Arab Gulf states to confront the Iranian threat.

Hariri and Asad will try to establish a new stage in Syro-Lebanese relations focusing on greater cooperation to ensure Lebanon’s stability. Meanwhile, the rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia has been especially remarkable because it was not achieved at the expense of Syria’s alliance with Iran. In fact, the continued strength of Syro-Iranian ties represents in some way the limits, or even the failure, of American diplomacy in Syria. President Obama has changed little in the Middle East dynamic; the peace process is as dead as ever, and it is no surprise, then, that the United States or the European Union have been unable to pry Syria away from Iran. The two countries have renewed their 30-year long mutual military defense pact in December against “common enemies and challenges”. Evidently, the enemy in question is Israel. Iran’s minister of defense, Ahmad Vahidi, said that Iran is ready to attack Israeli nuclear arms production installations if Israel should try to attack the Islamic Republic’s nuclear (for the time being only civilian) sites. Vahidi was responding to Israeli threats to use military action should international diplomatic efforts fail to resolve disputes surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Iran claims to have rockets capable of reaching Israel and he reiterated that threat during his visit to Damascus. This suggests that Syria would inevitably be drawn into any Iranian Israeli military confrontation.

The renewed military pact between Teheran and Damascus highlights the fact that the Obama administration has been perhaps too distracted in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama has not given much attention to Syria, even though his advisors, George Mitchell and his deputies have been far keener than their predecessors in trying to revive talks between Israel and Syria over the Golan. There has also been a notable improvement in bilateral relations as Obama is set to send a new ambassador to Damascus before the end of 2009 – a post left vacant since 2005, when Bush recalled the US ambassador after the murder of Rafiq Hariri. As for Syria and Iraq, (the latter said to be more stable and preparing for the withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2011 – though the March elections remain an important barometer), Syria is less of a concern to the United States than it was during the Bush administration, when it was blamed as the main crossing point for ‘al-Qaida’ terrorists into Iraq. Under Obama, that rhetoric has softened considerably, even as the government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has soured relations with Syria, continuing to accuse it of harboring and aiding the terrorists that strike in Iraq. In fact, while the Iraqi prime minister has intensified his accusations that Syria harbors al-Qaida and former Baathists ready to launch terrorist attacks in Iraqi cities, American security forces have been far more muted in making such claims over the past months.

Relations with Turkey
There is a new and friendlier atmosphere between Damascus and Washington, one which has no doubt contributed to the rebuilding of relations between Syria and Lebanon (and Saudi Arabia); however the relationship has been slow to address Syria’s main concerns. Syria has not been waiting around, however, for the tide to turn. It has adopted a somewhat more cynical attitude toward the West, including the European Union. In October, Syria delayed signing an economic agreement with the EU for which negotiations began in 2004. Syria and Turkey have also established a far closer relationship, removing visa requirements for travelers, promoting tourism and trade. President Asad has stated his hopes to establish a regional energy network with Turkey, establishing itself as a huge enterprise linking the Gulf hydrocarbon resources to the Turkish pipelines that go to Europe. Diplomatically, Turkey helps Syria increase its alliance options. The Americans – and Israelis – can only be pleased about this growing alliance since it counterbalances Syria’s dependence on Iran. Syria is one of the most secular Arab states and Turkey is a far more compatible ally than Iran in that sense.


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