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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: 109 - (26/03/13)

The assassination of 82 year old Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti in a suicide bombing attack in Damascus on March 22, serves as an important reminder of just how complicated and risky the Syrian civil war has become. Sheikh Buti was a Sunni authority in Syria, yet he did not abandon the regime-and not only when it was convenient to do so. He did not waver, even as the conflict evolved ever more into a sectarian struggle. Indeed, Sheikh Buti, born in 1930, was never a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood, nor of the notion of political Islam. He strongly condemned the 1979-1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria that culminated in the infamous Hama bombing in 1982 which killed anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people. The current war would appear to be, if not a continuation, certainly an echo of those events of thirty years ago. The suicide bombing has also served to show that there are no ‘good guys’ in this war. Syrians were completely immune from terror attacks and bombings in urban areas until the so called ‘Arab Awakening’ together with al Qaeda type fanatics reached its borders in March 2011. Now, bombings are weekly if not almost daily occurrences.

Civil wars, meanwhile, inevitably draw external supporters, meddlers and instigators. The party in the war that is identified as ‘the victim’ – in the Syrian case, the Western media and official line that victim has been identified as the ‘opposition’ – is portrayed as being justified in the struggle. Therefore, the various bombings that have shaken Damascus or Aleppo at the hands of the rebellion have not caused a stir; nor have they drawn official condemnation from those same governments that have purported to wage a ‘war on terror’ against precisely the kind of fellows that make up so much of the Syrian ‘opposition’. Yet, wars, especially those of the ‘civil’ variety are very murky and a less superficial analysis would suggest that there is not such a clear division between the two sides and between the good and the bad guys. It is even possible that ‘the people’, and certainly their interests, who have been truly oppressed by the Asad dictatorship over the past fifty years are not even represented by the armed insurgents of the ‘opposition’.

The Syrian opposition is now made up by a number of factions, divided along fundamentalist and secular elements with additional fractionalization within those two general classifications. As happened in Libya, as long as a common cause persists - overthrow of dictatorship - the revolt can even appear to be united and compact. Qadhafi’s demise, then, shed light on the various groups, representing different interests, who would soon start fighting among themselves. The same is happening in Syria, where the armed groups are varied, operating in different parts of the country, fighting for different causes, supported by several external ‘partners’. The latter could be described as the ‘usual suspects’, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both governments, while keen to thwart any political protests at home have been most active in mobilizing the ‘Arab Awakening’. Their reach has been extensive and elements in Mali and Niger have also started to blame both these States in helping to instigate or fund some of the Islamist insurgents in the southern Sahara under the guise of backing the opposition in international forums.

Qatar has supported all groups with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia has supported the even more zealous Salafi groups – as is coherent with the Wahhabi sub-group of Sunni Islam. The two factions are not necessarily allied and there is some friction between Qatar and Saudi Arabia as a result. Moreover, there is Turkey, which is home to the official Syrian Free Army (SFA) base, the armed wing of the revolt officially recognized by the international community. Yet this international recognition is itself rather foggy because the SFA has been accused by actual rebels in Syria of having a rather poor representation within the rebellion itself made up by Syrians who have lived many years in exile and who have lost touch with the recent Syrian reality. This has left two fundamental problems. The first is that the foreign powers or meddlers tend to support Syrian elements which best reflect their own interests, rather than the interest of Syrians as a whole. The Iranian Press TV – admittedly biased in favor of Asad – has reported that Saudi intelligence would appear to have given weapons not to the internationally recognized SFA but to ‘al-Nusra’, a group officially labelled as terrorist in Washington. Bias aside, the fact the presence of well armed jihadists on the ground in Syria has been well documented and the reports if short of veracity would, nevertheless, warrant investigation.

Al-Nusra may be seen as a microcosm of the ‘international community’s dilemma in deciding what should be done about Syria. Despite the prevailing cautious line, which has avoided direct military intervention and official level restrictions on the supply of weapons for the rebels, there is a pressure to act. In March, the EU debated whether or not to send weapons to the rebels, a move strongly supported by the foreign affairs ministers of France, Laurent Fabius, and UK, William Hague. The debate took place amid anticipated rumors that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in one of its counter-offensives.

The use of chemical weapons has been entirely disproved (unless Asad were looking for a prompt political suicide of the Baath regime, we can rest assured that the Syrian regime would avoid their use at all costs) but the pressure on western governments has remained. As for the militias on the ground, the West is fully aware of the presence and dangerous nature of groups such as al-Nusra (Jabhat to Nusrah li-Ahl al-Sham-= Rising Support for the Syrian people), but such admittedly radical groups are typically the most skilled in actual military terms. The scenario recalls the Afghanistan of the early nineties. In Syria, as in Afghanistan, fighters have been coming from Iraqi, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Algeria and Libya among other countries. They join groups such as al-Nusra, with its 3,000 fighters, which is trained and ready to die rather than surrender. They are Salafists, purist Sunni Islam to the bitter end; even among his men they recruited the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the air in the capital Aleppo, in Hama and Homs.

Al-Nusra fits into the general revolutionary phenomenon in Syria, which rose spontaneously first through peaceful demonstrations and then increasingly through violent means after the government’s repressive reaction. The majority of the fighters might still be described as ‘secular’; however, they are disorganized and poorly trained and they may risk falling into the trap of ‘banditry’. Interestingly, these ‘basic’ non-ideological rebels will inevitably clash with the more religiously motivated groups who are more motivated by the chance to fight against the ‘Alawite’ Shiites than by democratic ideals. In some cases, especially in the area of Aleppo, secular anti-government forces (the minority) have already engaged in full frontal battles against the religious zealots, hinting at what a post-Asad future may look like. The picture increasingly suggests Afghanistan as its model. And much like Afghanistan, the National Syrian Coalition elected a Prime Minister whose main qualifications are years of corporate experience in the United States.

That man is Ghassan Hitto; he will serve as the first prime minister of a shadow Syrian government. His nomination did not come without internal controversy – especially a dispute with former Agriculture Minister Asaad Mustafa – and surely it is not the last. Hitto left Syria at the age of 17 – in order to avoid military service presumably – and has reached executive level positions in the IT sector in the United States. He is an American citizen. The legitimate suspicion is that his American credentials offer ‘democratic’ guarantees to Washington while also helping to ease some weapons supply restrictions in the West. On the ground, however, the nomination will need some time to be accepted. The ‘Asharq al Awsat’ newspaper reported a member of the Syrian rebels saying that Hitto’s appointment has met strong opposition on the ground; he was unknown to most people and he is a Kurd – the Kurds have strongly opposed the jihadist militias. The seemingly unifying appointment will only serve to further fragment the opposition. Hitto is hardly the best choice for reconciling the various factions of the Syrian opposition. Perhaps Hitto might obtain more American support, but it is unlikely that that support will match Russia’s support for Asad.

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