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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)

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Bashir al-Asad

Update No: 017 - (30/03/05)

Syria will still maintain an influence in Lebanon, with or without troops
At the time of writing, Syria still maintains 8,000 troops in Lebanon. In less than a month, Syrian troops and intelligence operatives have been leaving and by early May, there will no longer be a Syrian military presence in Lebanon. Many have hailed this as a victory of democracy, while there has been much congratulatory talk in Washington that President Bush's administration and the Neo-Conservative philosophy of pushing for democratic change at all costs in the Middle East has been paying off. The neo-conservative establishment in Washington can be proud of its achievement in Lebanon, as the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon (USCFL - affiliated with the American Enterprise institute) points out on their website Interventionist Middle East scholars such as Daniel Pipes have long advocated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, indeed a paper to this effect by Pipes dates to May of 2000. Nevertheless, the withdrawal might not bring the democracy that so many are expecting out of the now ubiquitously named 'Cedar' revolution in reference to the Orange revolution in Ukraine in December 2004. Beirut witnessed huge and peaceful crowds marching both against and in favour of the Syrian presence, while President Asad was able to stave off some criticism by pointing to the evident lopsided enforcement of UN resolutions and that U.S. and Israeli insistence on the withdrawal are planned steps devised immediately after the war on Iraq. He said that UN resolution 1559 perpetuates the interference of certain foreign sides into the Lebanese affairs, stressing that there is no connection between the said resolution and extending the term of office of the Lebanese President Emil Lahoud. He explained that certain hidden items in the said resolution were prepared immediately after the war on Iraq. Asad is hinting at a revival of the alliance between elements of Lebanon's Maronite community, the Phalangists, and Israel. As far as Iraq is concerned, The United States has and continues to suggest that Syria has done little, and all but encouraged guerrilla elements, while Asad insisted that Syria has encouraged the elections, "and we have made everything possible to maintain Iraq's stability within the confines of available potentials."

Finally, the assassination of Rafik Hariri provided the necessary advantage to build a case against Syria using a two-pronged pretext. Syria was made to look responsible, through swift diplomatic action, as the US ambassador to Damascus was recalled to Washington immediately. At a later stage, while the investigation into the murder continued, it was suggested that Syria was not capable of guaranteeing security in Lebanon, and its presence there questioned on that basis. The UN sent a fact-finding mission in March to investigate the murder of Hariri and, while failing to find a 'smoking gun', its report focused on the more diplomatic alternative of blaming Syria for poor security. However, Syria's Permanent envoy to the UN Faisal Miqdad said that the U.N. fact-finding mission report was less a police style scientific investigation and more of a politically influenced one. Moreover, Miqdad noted that the UN mission relied excessively on the Lebanese opposition while essentially ignoring the other side. "The UN doesn't hold Syria to any responsibility for anything," Miqdad said in a statement yesterday at the UN headquarters. "The UN report should be more objective to analyse the general situation, and investigations should include all sides, particularly those who have interest to create such a tense atmosphere following the Hariri assassination, he added. Syria's position remains firm in terms of UN resolution 1559 presenting it a tool to divide Lebanon and building tensions there even before the Hariri assassination. 

Is Asad's presidency tottering?
As for president Asad, his 'retreat' from Lebanon may have weakened his position vis-à-vis the Ba'ath party. In mid March, there were unconfirmed reports that Asad left Damascus and went to Aleppo with Syrian military intelligence chief Gen. Assaf Chawkat, his brother-in-law. The waning Ba'ath party prestige in Syria depends on its strong stance toward Israel and the commitment to regain the Golan Heights through a comprehensive peace Arab - Israeli arrangement. There is wide-scale agreement that retreating from Lebanon reduces the leverage Syria can use in dealing with Israel over the Golan question. Reports from Beirut and Damascus suggest that apart from an alleged departure from Damascus by President Asad, some elements of the military have refused to follow orders for the pullout of troops as well as intelligence agents from both central Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley, while additional troops were deployed around Damascus itself to boost security in the capital. The 'rebels' are said to be led by the Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan and Firas Tlas, the son of former Defence Minister Mustapha Tlas as well as the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh. 

Reports of unrest in Syria are unconfirmed and were issued by members of the Lebanese opposition, who may have an interest in presenting Syria as being divided; nevertheless, Washington has started to consider the possibility that Asad's position may well have weakened over the retreat from Lebanon, and it is taking precautions. The Bush administration is concerned that unrest in Lebanon could destabilize Syria, which borders four countries pivotal to U.S. Middle East policy -- Israel, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, U.S. and Syrian sources said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States is talking to "as many people as possible" about the situation in Syria, and Lebanon, to ensure that Washington is prepared in the event of yet another abrupt political upheaval. The opposition group represents the Syria Reform Party, a small U.S.-based Syrian organization often compared to the Iraqi National Congress led by the one time Iraqi presidential hopeful Ahmed Chalabi. The INC, which led the campaign to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, had widespread U.S. financial and political support from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, as well as Congress. The fact that Washington has taken to supporting and working with such organizations, see the USCFL above, suggest that a direct attempt to destabilize Syria cannot be ruled out. U.S. officials, deny such allegations, but are not shy about their intentions to support "reform and change in the region and specifically Syria -- and how [the United States] can help that and work with people in the region and Syria to support that process." The President of France Jacques Chirac, advised the US to avoid any discussion of 'regime change' in Syria noting that he believes the Damascus government was unlikely to survive the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. He suggested that free elections in Lebanon would in turn force change inside Syria, possibly unravelling Asad's government, without outside intervention. 

Such a scenario is sure to have crossed the minds of the more astute advisors to president Asad whose Alawite dominated Ba'ath party is crossing one of the most delicate periods in its history. The Syrian Reform party is unlikely to wield much influence in Syria, itself however. Indeed, the potential beneficiary from a collapse of the Ba'ath in Syria would probably be an Islamic party. Syria's most serious internal political opposition has historically been the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers. In 1982, they staged a massive revolt in the city of Hama, which was brutally crushed by an aerial bombardment, tanks and artillery, leaving thousands dead. Syria has also helped the United States in gathering evidence against and arresting Islamists after the events of September 11, 2001 suggesting the US is well aware of the dangers of pursuing a policy of destabilization in Syria. Nevertheless, the next few months are going to be crucial for Asad. The Syrian president will have to strengthen his position within the party, while having to deal with the potential for mutiny among hardliners upset by the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon. Asad will also need to gain the people's support by restoring some of the reforms he implemented at the beginning of his presidency. He will have a chance to do that at the next Ba'ath party elections in May, by which time the retreat from Lebanon will be completed and its full effects starting to bloom. Finally, it should be noted that Syria would maintain some influential allies in Syria. 

The Shiite Muslim Hizbollah, is foremost among these and demonstrated its mobilization strength with a huge pro-Syrian rally said by some to be made up by more than 1 million people. Syria also has friends among Christians (after all Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1975 at the behest of Christians…and Henry Kissinger). Some suggest that by staying out of Lebanon, Syria will be better able to deal with its geopolitical concerns and actually strengthen its Lebanese alliances. Indeed, "Clean elections will maybe put an end to a very repressive security regime, and maybe lead to an election of a new president and new relationship with Syria," said Walid Moubarak, political science professor at Lebanese American University, particularly in the north, and other sects. Moreover, a prominent opposition member, the socialist Walid Jumblatt, said that Syria's withdrawal in no way means breaking ties with Syria. He said, "the direct influence will diminish of course. Nevertheless, Syria had, before the coming of its troops ... an influence in Lebanon. We have got to open a new phase of history with Syria and with the people of Syria." One certain aspect of that relationship means that rather than maintaining an overt presence, Syria will rely on a more covert intelligence network.

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