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SYRIA

 
  
  

 

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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
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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Area (sq.km)
185,180


Population
17,585,540

Capital
Damascus

Currency
 Syrian pound (SYP)

President 
Bashir al-Asad


Update No: 025 - (01/12/05)

In November, there was less attention to Syria's dealings with the UN mandated Mehlis commission, investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, suggesting the issue has released some of the tension that had built up over the previous months. At one point it seemed that an American attack was inevitable. However, and perhaps to Syria's advantage, the United States had to deal with a major public relations fiasco after an Italian news team presented a well documented video report on the use of white phosphorous by US forces in the battle for Fallujah of February 2004. Meanwhile, the Mehlis investigation continued and Syria was cooperative, as it continued to receive foreign delegations of friendly countries such as Russia and Algeria, which urged it to cooperate with the Commission. Syria agreed to allow intelligence officers sought for questioning by the UN commission led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis to go Vienna for questioning in late November. Just last week, Damascus said it banned the wanted Syrian nationals named in an interim report released last month on the probe of the UN commission from travel. Beirut newspaper suggest those wanted for questioning include Bahjat Suleiman, former domestic intelligence chief, the former head of military intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh, and his deputy Jameh Jameh. The five agents could even include General Assef Shawkat, head of military intelligence and President Bashar al-Asad's brother-in-law. Nevertheless, while offering cooperation, Syrian officials also found that the Syrian man held to be a crucial witness for UN investigators claims to have given evidence against his government under duress. 
Hussam Taher Hussam, self-professed former Syrian intelligence agent, said in a televised interview in Syria that he made up the information he gave to the Mehlis commission, and that it also made up a large part of an interim report issued last month by the UN investigator. Hussam said that Lebanese officials tortured him and offered bribes to persuade him to present false testimony against Syria to a UN commission investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. He also said that he was held in Lebanon by supporters of Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, and subjected to torture and drug injections to force him to testify, even as Saad offered him US$1.3 million to lie about senior Syrian officials. Hussam did not specify whether or not he took the money, but shed light on how Syrian officials were implicated in the plot. He said that Saad Hariri concocted a story about a truck used in the assassination, and that this truck was based in a Syrian military camp. Hussam also said that he was to tell the UN investigators, as part of the alleged plot, that Maher Asad, younger brother of Syrian President Bashar Asad, as well as Asef Shawkat, the very same, who is believed to be among the witnesses that went to Vienna to face the Mehlis commission. Hussam, could well be the unidentified witness in the interim report that has caused a furor over Syria last October, and who supposedly came forth voluntarily. The UN International Independent Investigation Committee (UNIIC) confirmed Hussam was a witness and said he had signed a statement on Sept. 1 that said he was testifying voluntarily and had not been forced, threatened or given incentives. 
The spokesperson for the Syrian inquiry into Hariri's murder, Ibrahim Daraji, said during a press conference on November 28 that if Hussam is the unidentified key witness quoted in the UN commission's interim report, then the United Nations' case "has completely collapsed." Saad Hariri did not personally respond to the allegations, but they indicate that Syria has reason to believe that Mehlis' interim report, which was well received by Beirut (and Washington), is politicized and unfounded. This suggestion is corroborated by the fact that another Syrian, Mohammed Zuhair Siddiq, also testified to commission but was later discredited by Syria, because he is a convicted criminal in Lebanon, and was presented as a key witness for the Mehlis report. 
Saad Hariri's office issued a statement denying that there had ever been any contact between Hussam and Hariri or any of his associates. Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst, said that Hussam's Syrian TV appearance was widely mocked in Lebanon as an attempt by President Asad and his allies to discredit the investigation. However, Hussam claims to have been interviewed by the Commission and Detlev Mehlis himself, will have to consider the possibility that Hussam's televised 'confession' has some truth in it. For the time being, the UN team insisted that Mr Hussam had spoken freely and was not offered money. According to foreign observers in Syria, Hussam's story is very popular in Syria and people believe it. As for Syrian officials, Ibrahim Darraji, who is running Syria's own investigation into the Hariri murder, said the claims meant the Mehlis report had now "collapsed". 
While it is too early to suggest that the Mehlis report has collapsed, the televised allegations of surprise witness Hussam and the popular - and favorable from the Syrian government 's point of view - reaction it has enjoyed among the Syrian population makes it more difficult to singularly pursue Damascus for the Hariri murder of last February 14. The UN itself may want to investigate the matter further and place stricter controls on the credibility of witnesses. Syria was blamed for the murder implicitly by interested parties immediately after the event, and Mehlis is under indirect pressure to implicate Syria in one way or another. Hussam, should he turn out to have lied during his televised appearance in Syria, could force a delay in the delivery of the Mehlis report (due December 15) while raising further doubts about its credibility. The troubles currently faced by Syria's main detractors such as the United States, contribute to the climate of weariness and take some pressure off Syria for the forthcoming months and the early part of the year. Certainly, there are still concerns. In mid-November, the US launched a raid across the Iraqi border, not far from the city of Al-Qaim, into Syria killing at least two border guards and wounding others. This attack comes on the heels of massive bombing operations by the US Air Force around and in al-Qaim since last July, attacks which were caused concern in Damascus. 

Mehlis Has not Stopped Foreign Investment 
The Mehlis investigation, meanwhile, has not discouraged foreign investment in Syria, as Gulf States have invested $1.8 billion by the end of October, which is remarkable considering that it was $720 million for all of 2004. The government recently announced projects totalling $5 billion involving Gulf based companies, and expects another $1 billion worth of new Arab investment before the year-end, said the minister in charge of economic affairs Al-Dardari,, who noted, "Until now, we haven't seen any negative impact of the UN investigations and the political environment surrounding Syria on foreign investment in the country". The minister said Syria is improving its infrastructure, while also opening the economy further to decentralize some activities that were formerly limited to the public sector. One example is the new Emaar properties company, which is based in Dubai. The company unveiled plans for two major Damascus real estate development projects on October 17. The two developments, "Eighth Gate" and "Damascus Hills", will be the city's first fully planned communities and are together valued at US$3.9 billion. They will be constructed in the countryside near Damascus and will comprise residential, commercial and real estate compounds, but few Syrians will have the opportunity, to enjoy the new real-estate development. India and China are investing in through their respective ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) for Petro-Canada's interest in a Syrian venture. OVL, CNPC have bid for Petro-Canada's 38% in Al Furat fields in Syria. The value of the 20-year-old 36 oilfields is put around $1 billion. 

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