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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: 088 - (30/04/11)

A Jump into the Abyss
A month after the start of the revolt against the regime, the situation in Syria has become more uncertain. President Asad announced reforms, changed the government and repealed the over 40 year old emergency laws; despite these changes, there is no apparent solution in sight. The regime has also contradicted itself; after lifting the ‘emergency laws’ that banned public demonstrations, within hours it escalated the level of repression sending tanks and snipers into the town of Daraa, one of the main centers of revolt. The number of victims, so far, is estimated at 400, exceeding the official figures for those who died in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and it is destined to increase. Western countries have started to treat the situation in Syria with greater apprehension. The United States has repatriated diplomats’ families and non-essential staff and, along with other countries, advised citizens to avoid visiting the country. The situation can no longer be dismissed as a temporary phase; international organisms and the major powers will be feeling the pressure to take action, in coherence with what has been done for Libya. It is likely that sanctions will be applied against leading figures of the Syrian regime. Syria has closed its borders with Jordan. The government, also in flagrant contradiction of the ‘repeal’ of emergency laws, has expelled foreign journalists, making it difficult to verify the accuracy of accounts coming out of Syria.

On paper, the government reforms announced on April 16 addressed all the demands of the demonstrators. The emergency laws, launched in 1963 with the advent of the Baathist regime, were the backbone of Syria’s repressive system. Their repeal, technically, bans security officials from arresting anyone without a warrant, while ensuring a citizen’s right to a fair trial with legal representation. More significantly, perhaps, the government has also banned the National Security Court, which tried cases related to the Emergency laws. All pending cases have been transferred to civil courts. These are the reforms that Asad intended to launch only after securing the Golan back from Israel. The Army and the Baath leadership (essentially the same group) cannot be too pleased about his development, suggesting the extent of concern that has permeated among the leadership.

The reforms also include a law granting permission to form political parties, even those that diverge significantly from the Baathist vision – though the ban on religious parties remains. Moreover, government salaries have been increased. Ultimately, the April reforms leave a Syria that is radically different than the way Syria was last March, when the protests began. It should be noted that the spark for the revolts in Daraa was provided by the actions of an unpopular local governor who has since been fired; while the reforms have affected Damascus, Latakia and a handful of other cities; they remain focused on Daraa. The reforms have not yet been fully implemented, but by the time they are the Baath party will no longer enjoy its position as the ultimate “leader and ruler” of the country. This may give the Syrian regime the false confidence that it may still be in a position to save itself and endure the storm.

There is also a sense that the Syrian regime has dropped the ball and that, as seen in other Arab countries, there is simply an overwhelming desire for change. In Tunisia, anyone who was deemed too close to the Ben Ali presidency was forced to resign, even if widely recognized as being honest. Since January 14, Tunisians have gone through two prime ministers. In Egypt, the demands for legal retribution against the Mubaraks, father and sons, have also gone with calls for faster and more radical changes. The Arab revolts are about change for change’s sake. This is the real problem facing Asad now. He enjoyed popularity among young people and can still count on the support of the Sunni middle and upper classes and important minorities such as the Christians and the Alawis. The latter fear the kind of change that might emerge. However, the repression ordered by president Bashir al-Asad (and the Baath leadership) may have already crossed a line without return. Parallels are being made between the tanks in Daraa and the Syrian air force and army bombardment of Homa in 1982, which killed many thousands, ordered by Hafez al-Asad. The situation in Syria cannot be managed as it was in Tunisia or Egypt.

There a strong and relatively independent military chose to be in favor of the protesters or to be neutral, preventing a descent into anarchy and/or civil war. Should Bashir al-Asad weaken and grant even more freedoms and at a faster pace, he could face the prospect of an internal coup – just as he did when he started his presidency by launching a series of reforms. For such a skillful player of political chess, as was shown in Lebanon in 2005-2006 and in the diplomatic gains secured in the past few years, Asad’s choice to mobilize the army in Daraa could exact a high price. So far, Iran has been kept outside, but it could be tempted to ‘help’ Asad confront the protests, if he were to be seen to be failing, leading to even more violence and generating the kind of regional destabilization that would inevitably draw Israel’s attention. This, in turn, would serve as the excuse for the old guard to repeal the reforms through a renewed nationalist impetus bent on regaining the Golan through non-diplomatic means although they probably don’t have that capability; moreover, it could also re-awaken the dormant Muslim Brotherhood that was silenced in Homa 30 years ago. Evidently, Israel fears ‘regime change’ and instability in Syria, just as it did in Egypt. After all, Asad, while considered an enemy in Tel Aviv, has kept the contested borders of the Golan calm and the instability. There are many questions and few answers, because the opposition remains disorganized and without a clear goal other than regime change. The West may see the collapse of the Baathist regime as an opportunity to cut Syria’s ties with Iran and to weaken Hezbollah (though Hezbollah has its own internal momentum, having been created autonomously because of specific Lebanese circumstances in 1982).

The Syrian scenario is more reminiscent of post-Saddam Iraq than Egypt or Tunisia.

The Syrian revolt is full of those famous “unknown unknowns” that the US secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld used, to describe the situation in Iraq. In many ways, the pitfalls in Syria, given its strategic position, are many. The United States has technically been more of an enemy than a friend to Syria . Yet, American and Western interests might be better ensured under the current Syrian regime, not the least of which is Israeli security, as mentioned above. In Egypt, the United States could safely support the anti-Mubarak protests once it was determined that the Israeli peace treaty would be protected by the army in a post Mubarak context. The army in Baathist Syria is the government and the collapse of one means the collapse of the other. Given that the Asad dictatorship has always relied on the loyalty of a small minority, the Alawis, the government has always protected minorities and Christians have generally had good relations with the Syrian regime. Iraqi Christians have fled en masse to Syria to escape from sectarian tensions. Paradoxically, the Maronite Christians in Lebanon would prefer to see the Asad regime collapse, given that they would like to weaken the Syrian ally of Hezbollah. In addition, even in that situation, it’s not clear how the collapse of the Baath in Syria would resolve the Hezbollah problem. It may be argued that Syria has also controlled Hezbollah, preventing it from getting too powerful, in order to maintain a balance. There is also the Sunni elite that has been allowed to grow very rich in the past few years thanks also to an influx of Gulf investments and warmer relations with Saudi Arabia. In other words, with all these perils, the West has to consider its sanctions carefully. Syria risks taking a jump into the abyss. It is unclear what the protesters want other than the end of the Asad regime, and the world cannot allow a power vacuum to surface in the regional context inhabited by Syria.     


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