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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: 085 - (28/01/11)

Between Tunisia and Lebanon
In the wake of the collapse of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the pan-Arab media were reporting that over a million people, or about 10% of the total Syrian population, have fallen below the poverty line in 2010. On January 18, the Syrian government announced in national newspapers that it would establish a national fund to assist 420,000 poor families. Evidently, the Syrian regime has also feared a possible ‘Tunisian contagion’ effect, deciding to take pre-emptive measures. Like Egypt and Algeria, Syria can also rely on a very effective internal security apparatus to ensure its continued stability and hold on power; the highly militarized nature of Syrian society also ensures a tight hold on power. In Tunisia, Ben Ali’s demise was favored by the fact that the military leadership stopped supporting Ben Ali (a former officer himself) – as well as the political elite. In Syria, given the considerable ethnic Alawi nature of the inner security and Baath party leadership surrounding the president, Bashir Asad can count on strong support from the army and the ‘mukhabarat’ or internal police. Moreover, the Syrian population has lived the kinds of chaotic situations following regime changes in Iraq and Lebanon that have made it wary of sudden political change. Syria can also muster the element of ‘the external enemy’, in the form of Israel, when there is internal pressure through which to direct malcontent and anger.

This technique has even worked in Egypt in the past, despite the fact that Egypt and Israel have formal diplomatic relations. Therefore, it is unlikely that Syria will catch the Tunisian ‘bug’ despite the fact that the country has seen poverty levels increase, especially in eastern rural areas due to a longstanding drought, which has affected agriculture. That said, the Syrian regime will surely learn from the Tunisian revolt, as will other Arab regimes, that there is an unemployed and over-educated youth force that is capable of creating a serious threat to political stability; no Arab country is immune from this ‘force’, which has also shown its ability to use new media such as Twitter or Facebook to multiply its mobilization efforts. Oil producing countries will generally be better able to handle the pressure of youth unemployment through the ability to introduce subsidies and price controls, to moderate the effects of the youths’ limited economic power. Algeria is a case in point, where the latter is concerned; Libya immediately played the subsidy card to pre-empt revolts as soon as the situation in Algeria and Tunisia started to degenerate. Syria then is in a unique position in large part because of its regional context and the ethnic ties binding the political, security and military leadership.

And on the Lebanese Front
Walid Jumblatt the Druze leader who was one of the leading advocates of ousting Syria from Lebanon in 2005 tilted the government crisis in Lebanon in favor of the Hezbollah led coalition, which technically restores an important degree of Syrian influence in Beirut. The coalition has carefully chosen a close Syrian ally, billionaire (and Sunni Muslim) Najib Mikati to head the coalition and serve as prime minister. Saad Hariri paid the political price of heeding US calls to abide by the decision of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the murder of his father, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. Hezbollah, which now controls government, can opt to pull Lebanese support from the STL and ignore the indictments facing some of its senor leaders. Mikati is a close friend of the Asad family in Syria and a billionaire businessman who made his fortune in telecommunications, after obtaining the license for one of the main mobile telephony services company in Lebanon during the years of Syrian influence (2000-2001). The new political arrangements in Beirut have already drawn the concern of Israel and the United States. Miqati will now have to reach a compromise between Hezbollah and the outgoing coalition led by Hariri. Miqati has the reputation of being a moderate, non-ideological. He has already served as interim prime minister in the spring of 2005, during the transition between the pro-Syrian Omar Karame and the ‘anti-Syrian’ Fouad Siniora. What is important to note, especially as far as American and Israeli concerns, is that Miqati is a Syrian ally, rather than an Iranian one.

On paper, Miqati’s presence should enable Syria to gain back some of its influence in Lebanon also at the expense of Iran and to some extent, Syria will be in a better position to control Hezbollah from such a vantage point – despite the fact that Hezbollah is behind his appointment. We have already discussed the emergence of a rivalry between Hezbollah and Syria in Lebanon. Having Miqati, an ‘ally’, as prime minister, Syria no longer needs Hezbollah to ‘control’ Hariri, seeing as he has been relegated to the opposition. Syria’s goal in Lebanon has always been as a guarantor, acting to prevent any one political current to hold the balance of power for a prolonged period of time; should Hezbollah get too ‘comfortable’ in its power broker role it is entirely conceivable that Damascus would tilt its support in favor of Saad Hariri to restore equilibrium. The new government will not be able to prevent the STL from issuing its indictments against Hezbollah, and now part of the government, Hezbollah cannot even threaten to launch a government crisis (as it has by withdrawing its ministers on January 12 after Hariri discussed the STL in Washington). The new prime minister will have to establish a compromise when the STL accusations are announced, but Syria’s interests are assured. Nevertheless, the United States is now concerned that the STL indictments will have a smaller impact, especially as Washington was hoping to persuade European governments to issue sanctions adopting the official position that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, in light of the STL findings. Isolating Hezbollah would have weakened the organization’s control over southern Lebanon indirectly compromising Syria’s claims over the Golan. Nevertheless, while Hezbollah, leading the government coalition, will be able to ignore the indictments of its members, the EU will then face pressure to adopt – targeted - sanctions against members of the government, presumably including Hassan Nasrallah.

Of course, if the West and the United States in particular, is truly interested in weakening Hezbollah, it should make a greater effort to secure a peace deal between Israel and Syria. The new American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has started his tour of duty in Damascus, expressing hopes for better ties, which suggests that Washington may be ready to start a serious discussion about the Golan. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, meanwhile, publicly expressed support for the Golan to be returned by Israel, in talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem. This clear position suggests that the West may soon resume the Syrian track to peace, before tackling the thornier Palestine/Israel one. The uncertainties over the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Egypt, as they experience unprecedented political changes, the rise to power of Hezbollah may push Israeli prime minister Netanyahu to finally tackle the Golan problem, a process that his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, had begun before losing elections.    


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