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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: 086 - (28/02/11)

Similar yet Different
Syria has much in common with Tunisia and Egypt; it even has elements of similarity with Libya. Like these three fellow Arab countries, Syria is marked by deep socio-economic divisions, high unemployment, high birth rates and high percentages of people living below the poverty line (14%). On paper, then, it is only a matter of time before Syria erupts in the same way as Egypt. Like Egypt, Syria’s presidency is legitimated primarily by this institution’s relationship with the army. No Syrian president can continue to exercise power without the consent of the armed forces. In many ways, president Hosni Mubarak was ousted because he had lost the support of the armed forces, as well as the people, and long before January 2011. The Egyptian armed forces resented former air force general Mubarak’s plan to be succeeded by his son Gamal, who simply was not a military man.

Egypt’s armed forces have also acted as the main guarantor of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, thanks to which Egypt enjoys USD 1.3 billion in American military aid, as well as American military cooperation, joint exercises, training and other related benefits. In contrast, the Syrian army ensures that Syria will not make peace with Israel until the latter fully relinquishes the Golan Heights. Therefore, president Asad must keep up the pressure on Israel and adopt a foreign policy aimed at securing the return of the Golan; so far, he has done so, maintaining the pressure on Israel, managing to exercise pressure by proxy in Lebanon, through such elements as Hezbollah, and through its alliance with Iran. If president Bashir al-Asad continues to enjoy the confidence of the armed forces, he has also been able to maintain a level of legitimacy with the very type of entrepreneurial, educated youth that were demanding Mubarak’s ouster in Tahrir Square a few weeks ago. Asad is young and is perceived as being someone who understands the difficulties that young people face as they try to build a future. The youth also understand – even if they may entirely dislike - that Asad cannot move too rapidly with economic reforms in order not damage his military basis of support and the related repressive security apparatus to sustain him.

Asad the elder showed no apprehension when he put down a revolt by extremist elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, bombarding that city and killing an estimated 10,000 people (if not more). In 1982, there was no al-Jazeera television, nor was there Twitter, Facebook and the Internet. Even, Asad the elder, brutal as he could be, would have to act more cautiously if having to confront another rebellious Hama. President Bashir al-Asad, an ophthalmologist, the father of a very modern and highly westernized family (even featured in a feature article by Vogue Magazine in February) would no doubt be very reluctant to order the use of weapons against his own people. The youth of Syria seem to understand this and respect him, maybe genuinely like him such that it can be said that at the personal level, if not the instituional one, Bashir al-Asad enjoys the support of his population. Neither Mubarak nor Ben Ali, and certainly not Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, can make such claims. There is a tacit understanding that when Syria finally makes peace with Israel, Asad will have the opportunity to launch political and economic reforms, as he will be less reliant on military support.

Peace with Israel would also enable the president to divert more funds from military spending towards social welfare support, necessary in order to increase the rate of market reform and integration in the global economy. For the time being, Israel serves the purpose of uniting Syrians behind a patriotic cause, which may partly compensate for the economic and political problems faced by the Syrian presidency. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia could divert the public’s attention through patriotism in quite the same way, while in Libya, causes have always been idiosyncratic and motivated purely by the Qadhafi’s whim, whether it be Arab nationalism in the 1970’s and 80’s or pan-Africanism in the 1990’s. Meanwhile, as in all Arab countries, Syria has no viable opposition and even the feared Islamists have been very careful to keep a low profile in Syria since Hama. In Syria, there continues to be a ‘state of emergency’ (as in Egypt until a few weeks ago) banning any form of public demonstration. Protests have been typically rare, and even if they have become somewhat more frequent in the past few days – interestingly there was a demonstration by a few hundred Syrians in front of the Libyan embassy in support of the Libyan people – including one involving a bazaar shopkeeper being beaten by police. The minister of the interior has opened an investigation into the episode and allowed the video footage of the incident to be shown on public television, disciplining the police officers involved.

Are Reforms on the Way?
French officials believe that president Asad has been considering allowing greater democracy; some of his advisers suggest that more openness would increase his already strong popularity, while the military establishment fears that a ‘perestroika’ would end up benefiting the Muslim Brotherhood. If this argument sounds familiar, it is because deposed president Mubarak in Egypt has used it for years to counter US pressure to democratize. The demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and even those in Libya have shown that the Muslim Brotherhood, or its islamist offshoots, has been losing influence. In Egypt, they were ‘late to the party’ and they do not appear to enjoy any kind of significant appeal among the critical youth population. Indeed, it may be said that the Egyptian revolt indicates the start of a new phase in Middle Eastern political/philosophical trends. If it is perhaps still too early to discuss the end of Islamism, it certainly has to be acknowledged that a new wave of pragmatic political thought is sweeping the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood, long considered Egypt’s most organized and formidable opposition group joined the protests a week after they started; unlike the Shiite clerics who hijacked the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the Brotherhood lacks a charismatic leader to inspire the people. In Syria, the dangers of religious sectarianism have become all too evident thanks to the overwhelming presence if Iraqi refugees (many Christians) and the vicissitudes of the so-called Lebanese democracy. Young people in Syria are demanding an end to corruption, but they also like their president. Ultimately, Asad will probably listen to his own advice and proceed by introducing cautious liberalizing reforms. The test will come at the municipal and parliamentary elections scheduled for this year. The constitution, which essentially allows only the Baath party and its offshoots to run, should be reformed in favor of permitting multiple parties.     


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