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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 21,517 21,900  19,500 67
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 US $ 1,160 1,130     1,040 130
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Bashir al-Asad

Update No: 029 - (31/03/06)

Winds of Change (in Washington)? 
Amid calls for the establishment of a special UN court to prosecute those responsible for the murder of Rafiq Hariri, new evidence offered by the special UN appointed prosecutor Brammertz and the strengthening of the Islamist camp in the Middle East after the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections as well as a resurgence of the Islamic Brotherhood in Syria there is different wing blowing in the region. The wind is not coming from the Middle East; however, it is coming from Washington. Only last summer, it seemed as if a US attack against Syria would be inevitable. US troops were frequently engaging alleged insurgent positions near the Iraqi border, and on more than one occasions Syrian soldiers were killed. Meanwhile, the US was applying international pressure to isolate Syria over its involvement in Lebanese affairs and the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe US efforts to isolate Syria have failed, just as much of its Middle East policy has been failing. An important sign that there is a change of 'air' in Washington, beyond the blooming flowers of the spring, is that leading Neo-conservative thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama have openly declared the failure of the Neo-conservative project - which advocates regime change in Syria - and mainstream scholars such as John Mearsheimer of Chicago University and Stephen Walt of Harvard published a paper openly criticizing the excessive influence of the pro-Israel lobby in American foreign policy in the Middle East and the distortions it creates for American interests. It is highly doubtful such a paper could have been published at the height of the 'Neo-Con' period (2002-2004). Therefore, there is a hint that US policy in the Middle East will take a more realist and less ideological course, as if the old guard made up by people such as Brent Scowcroft or Zbigniew Brzezinski or even George Bush Sr. has started to be heard again. As if confirming the change of direction vis--vis Syria, the famous journalist Charlie Rose interviewed president Bashir al-Asad in Damascus at the end of March, something that would not have been possible just months earlier considering US sensibilities. Also in march, a United States general also praised Syria's efforts to control movements of suspected terrorists at its border with Iraq, even as the wave of terror in that country continued unabated. 

Indeed, the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections, the continued influence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics and the rise of an Islamist opposition in Syria have underscored US misunderstandings and foreign policy failures in the Middle East region. The US has been courting Saad Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq Hariri, because he represented the rising anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon. However, the US failed to consider the return of General Michel Aoun, a Maronite protagonist of the final stages of the Lebanese civil war of the 1980's. Last February 6, Aoun and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah appeared together in Beirut to sign a memorandum of understanding between the general's Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, throwing US policy toward Syria into the air. In fact, in late November 2005, Aoun met State Department officials in Washington, even while he was already holding talks with Hezbollah. The US believed that Aoun, as the leader of Lebanon's Maronite Christians would not form any alliance with the Syrian backed Hezbollah. Such an alliance, while altering the US strategy to pressure Syria also implied some support for the Hezbollah program, including its anti-American stance. Some observers have noted that backfiring tactics such as these, along with the failure to fully appreciate the strength of Hamas support in the Palestinian elections are a symptom of the fact that the United States and the west in general have isolated the crucial governments of the area, receiving only distorted or incomplete interpretations from the so-called moderate Arab states of Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The isolation of Syria and other 'rogue' states of the Middle East like Iran led to miscalculation and misunderstanding. 

As intriguing is the fact that the US supported Saad Hariri, received by Condoleeza Rice in Washington recently, and has held talks with members of the Syrian opposition, which include figures from the Muslim Brotherhood. Saad Hariri is said to have met dissident Abdel Halim Khaddam, who defected from Syria last year and Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in Paris and later this month to form an alliance with the Khaddam-Muslim Brotherhood alliance and Lebanon's leading anti-Syrian politicians. This was made possible also by the fact that the Syrian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Ali Bayanouni has joined Khaddam in Paris to form a joint 'anti-Asad' group. The interesting part is that by supporting Hariri, a member of this new opposition formation, the United States would also be supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. This is sure to cause some concern in Washington, The potentially more realistic foreign policy dictated by a keener observance of American interests would caution against such a policy. Iraqi serves as a very grim reminder of how such policies can backfire, and nobody can possibly be interested in a destabilized Syria, featuring a potential rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. This could also prompt a rethinking of the policy of isolating Syria that has prevailed in the Bush administration. 

Such isolation was, doubtless, exacerbated by the dominating neo-conservative ideology that has prevailed in Washington until recently. In particular, Hezbollah, as an enemy of Israel, and as the most successful opponent of Israeli military advances in Lebanon has been automatically painted as an enemy of the United States. This view was widely promoted by the Neo-conservative establishment preventing constructive dialogue concerning the actual nature of Syrian power in Lebanon, leading to what amounted to threats of war against Syria if it did not withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April 2005. As for Hezbollah and Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, sources from the 'Asian Times' have reported that already in March 2005, the two formations were negotiating privately to achieve a national consensus which would also have included the Sunni party led by Saad Hariri and the Druzes of Walid Jumblatt. The United States continue to isolate Hizbollah, ignoring the integral role the Shiite movement has carved into Lebanese society, obfuscating its policies with Syria as well. Syria, which given its historical role and position, should be an important interlocutor for the United States in the region. 

Meanwhile, if the US continues to be hostile toward Hezbollah and its Syrian backers, the UN Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said that the Hezbollah militias should not be disarmed by force. Rather, the group should disband and integrate into the Lebanese army. Roed Larsen visited Lebanon in occasion of a national conference of Lebanese political leaders on the disarmament of Hezbollah and the fate of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. The disarmament of Hezbollah is tied to anti-Syrian formations. The Lebanese government considers the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, labelled a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, a legitimate resistance movement fighting Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory and the group continues to fight Israel in the Chebaa Farms. However, if relations between Syria and Lebanon have been very shaky in the past year, there is some hope of improvement as Roed-Larsen urged Syria to establish diplomatic relations and demarcate its border with Lebanon as a way of improving ties strained since the assassination. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, an opponent of Lahoud, also stressed the need to correct relations with Syria.

Brammertz Investigation: the UN has authorized talks on the formation of a Special Court 
Meanwhile, greater Syrian - US cooperation could also help resolved the Hariri murder investigation. For its part, the United Nations Security Council has authorized UN Security General Kofi Annan to start negotiations on the establishment of a special international court to try suspects that conceived or participated in the bomb attack of 14 February 2005 in the centre of Beirut, which killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and another 22 people. The 15-member Council unanimously approved the resolution, which aside from calling on Annan to discuss the creation of the tribunal with Beirut, calls for respect of the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, from where Syria only withdrew its troops at the start of last summer after a 29-year occupation. Lebanese authorities appositely requested the creation of the international court on March 22. The UN inquiry team, presided by the Belgian justice Serge Brammertz (who after 6 months of works replaced German Detlev Mehlis), is investigating into responsibilities for ordering and carrying out the attack. Already conclusions reached by Mehlis indicated complicity of Syrian secret services in the attack against Hariri and his escort, as reported in previous updates. Brammertz said that Syria's cooperation will be crucial to continued progress in the probe. In the aforementioned televised interview of president Asad by Charlie Rose, the Syrian president denied allegations of Syrian involvement.


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