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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: 097 - (26/02/12)

The Heart of Many Intersecting Interests
The violence in Syria continues and no solution appears in sight; indeed, the best outcome that can be expected in the present circumstances is a stalemate. The western powers, abetted by the western media, are determined to see the end of the Asad regime to such an extent that even if the crisis were to be resolved with Asad remaining in his presidential chair, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine a Syria, under his leadership returning to international normalization. Would the United States ever sponsor Middle East peace talks, to which Syria is a crucial party, under a continued Asad leadership? Syria risks the same fate as post Gulf war Iraq, in which sanctions crippled economic activity, eroding any prestige or influence from what had been a rich and proud regional power.

Asad faces a Catch-22 situation. He could, technically, defeat the opposition, which is increasingly concentrating around the city of Homs (the Syrian ‘Benghazi’?) using its military advantage in an approach similar to the1982 defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. Indeed, this war might be said to be its offspring. However, using to the maximum the kind of firepower available to the elite and mostly Alawi Syrian armed forces, against the opposition, which is becoming increasingly better armed itself, would draw inevitable international, that is possibly NATO military intervention, against which the Baathist government would have little defence. Conversely, Asad cannot afford to appear weak or unwilling to act in his role as the leading member of the Alawi clan, which accounts for only 12-15% of the population. The conflict has already been ‘tribalized’ and for the Alawis there can be no turning back; their clan has ruled over Syria for almost 50 years and the Asad leadership’s demise could almost certainly take the form of an ethnic bloodbath fueled by revenge, dwarfing the present horrors.

Asad, even were he so inclined, cannot afford to yield to excessive opposition demands; he has to manage the inevitable transition toward a more pluralistic system of governance by balancing his own clan’s concerns. If he takes a ‘soft’ line, he faces a risk of an internal putsch, possibly by his more militaristic brother Maher, who heads the Republican Guard, or another military figure who could be more willing to drag the country even deeper into war. It also seems too late to start making concessions; too many have been killed on both sides of the uprising.

Asad’s best chance of warding off direct international military intervention is to maintain a stalemate. A bombing attack in Aleppo, highly unusual, in early February, blamed on terrorists, possibly al-Qaida, was an indication that the armed opposition wants to provoke the Asad government into making the mistake of ‘over-reacting’, of launching a massive all-out 1982 style assault such as to increase the likelihood of NATO intervention. This has been the case, especially in Homs, which is quickly becoming a sort of current day version of what Beirut had been in the late 70’s to the early 90’s. The very fact of al Qaida’s presence shows the degree of outside Sunni militancy in the Syrian story.

The opposition’s provocation also includes direct attacks, using foreign fighters – many from Libya who have infiltrated the Free Syrian Army, against government targets. The opposition’s game is supported by the fact that Syria, much more so than any other country that has experienced the Arab Spring, such as Libya or even Egypt, is at the heart of interests that extend way beyond its borders. Syria is at the heart of regional and global interests that intersect The United States and its western allies, Russia, China and of course Iran. In February, Chinese and Russian diplomatic delegations followed one another to evaluate ways in which to help their Syrian ally confront the pressure and prevent his country from falling, as did Libya. Russia and China are encouraging Asad to deal with the revolt in the most conciliatory manner possible. Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, is putting pressure on Asad to launch a process of ‘national dialogue’ and state reform, the first step of which is a referendum on constitutional reform, which is expected to formally open the political sphere to political parties and to the end of the supremacy of the Baath. Lavrov, who understands the Middle East better than many (Syria having remained Russia’s most important Arab ally), is not putting excessive pressure on Asad, knowing full well that it could backfire and prompt an internal coup. Russia is buying time for Asad, also indicating support for the Arab League observation mission, whose report spoke clearly of abusive practices also being carried out by the armed opposition, more and more reflected in western media reports.

Russia’s position is steadfastly against foreign intervention. Russia has useful strategic interests to protect in Syria in the form of the military naval base at the port of Tartous. China takes a similar non-interventionist stance, while local powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ready to cut short any more negotiations, just as soon calling for armed intervention… by NATO! The Saudis have of course been backing the Muslim Brotherhood, while Turkey is concerned by the pressure that Syrian Kurds could exercise on its own internal separatist movements. The Syrian revolt and its repercussions are also related to the overturned balance that has resulted from the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, where a nationalist regime has been replaced by one based on sectarianism.

Asad’s Syria represents the last of Arab nationalism and it too is succumbing to sectarian pressures. The United States, and particularly the neo-conservatives that pushed for regime change in Iraq, are enthusiastically supporting regime change and ‘democracy’ in Syria - seemingly they learned nothing from the Iraqi experience - but how could a democracy emerge in a country that has not seen a single month of democracy, moving from monarchy to dictatorship since first gaining independence? This remains an ‘unknown unknown’ to use the always more apt description of the Middle East of the ‘Spring’, inadvertently coined by Donald Rumsfeld. There are no guarantees that a post-Asad future in Syria would look anything like Tunisia or Egypt, even if it is almost inevitable, in a country where political discourse has been stifled for so long that the Islamists remain the strongest force for ideological cohesion.

The West always seems to be surprised that revolts in the Arab world inevitably lead to the success of Islamist parties. It happened long before the ‘Spring’ in Algeria in 1992, and then with Hamas in 2006, years before the ‘Spring’. The lack of alternative secular ideals in the Arab dictatorships has left Islam as the point of reference, because it constitutes the only moral and ethical alternative in a system were all secular ideology is monopolized by the State. Indeed, for all its anti-Asad rhetoric, the West and the United States are subtly indicating a growing wariness for the Islamist potential of post-Asad Syria. In recent weeks, while the world is aghast at the humanitarian situation in Homs, the American press has been quoting powerful officials, starting to express concerns about possible al-Qaida involvement in the ranks of the armed opposition in Syria. The statements from Al-Qaida’s new boss, al-Zawhari, has slowed the American administration’s push for a more direct military role in Syria in the form of arms supplies to the rebels. Al-Zawhari urged ‘true’ Muslims to support the revolt in Syria according to the ‘Huffington Post’. President Asad and those familiar with the Syrian scene had been warning of the involvement of extremist islamist factions in the anti-Asad rebellion since the very beginning; however, it seemed that the American administration was ignoring such warnings. The fact that some US government officials have started to speak more openly about the potential role (or backing from) by al-Qaida in the emerging Syrian civil war would suggest the White House is having reservations about full-fledged support for the rebellion. In fact, the American embassy in Damascus is still open. Can the US and Al Qaida really be on the same side?

American and British media, meanwhile, have been reporting brutalities being committed by both sides, finally recognizing that there are very violent gangs within the opposition movement, who are more than willing to maim, torture and execute at least as enthusiastically, as government thugs. The Syrian National Council, until recently the body around which much of the opposition is trying to revolve, is also starting to show its cracks and it faces criticisms of failing to control the violence exercised by ‘its’ military branch of the Syrian Free Army who appear to act independently of the SNC. The media has been echoed by the American military leadership, which sees it as premature to arm the rebels; a very surprising assessment given calls from President Obama, Secretary Clinton or President Sarkozy of France, that Asad has to go. It may be that the West is starting to rethink its enthusiastic position toward regime change in Syria which was largely to deprive Iran of an ally. Amid reports of state violence, there are ever increasing reports outlining the rebels’ violence. The newly emerging concerns about arming the rebels have been muted but very clear and they betray potential for compromise with the positions expressed by China and Russia. Could it be that the Syrian crisis will be allowed to burn out before it has a chance to make its strongest impact?

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