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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)

Books on Syria

REPUBLICAN REFERENCE

Area (sq.km)
185,180


Population
17,585,540

Capital
Damascus

Currency
 Syrian pound (SYP)

President 
Bashir al-Asad


Update No: 027 - (01/02/06)

How will the Hamas Electoral Victory in Palestine Play in Syria?
The victory of Harakat al-muqadimah al-Islamiya, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Palestinian Territories has been received with trepidation in the West. There are fears the crippled peace process might endure even greater obstacles, while the international community has even started to debate the possibility of cutting off aid to the Palestinian National Authority (ANP). However, Syria and Iran welcomed Hamas' victory, and inevitably their support makes them part of the problem in the eye of the 'International Community'. The fact that Iran has been cited to the UN Security Council over its decision to pursue nuclear energy research, and that both Iran and Syria are considered by the United States and Israel as sponsors of terrorism through Hizbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas itself in the Palestine suggests that Syria will come under increased international pressure. Moreover, the victory of an Islamic political movement in fair and democratic elections will also raise the hopes of Syria's own Islamist parties, which have been lying dormant since the repression of the 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood were brutally crushed in the city of Hama by Hafez al-Asad, father of Bashir. The Hamas victory will have also have similar repercussions throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Arab nations are eager to moderate Hamas and see it enter government with policies that would avoid a cutoff of international aid to the Palestinians and avert a breakdown in the peace process with Israel. They also want to prevent the Hamas victory from boosting the Islamic movements in their own territories. However, Damascus has close ties with Hamas and the organization's politburo leader Khaled Mashaal lives in Damascus. Syria is a key Hamas supporter and has been under a US-led international pressure to expel the group's leadership from Damascus, including Mashaal. In fact, rejecting the notion discussed by the so-called Quartet (EU, USA, UN and Russia) of cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, Syria has proposed to Arab nations to compensate the Palestinians for any aid Western powers might cut after the election victory of Islamist group Hamas. State-run Sana news agency on Tuesday quoted Farouq al-Shara, the foreign minister, as saying Syria would submit the proposal at an Arab summit in March.

Renewed Popularity of Islamic Parties - good for politics and business?
Almost 25 years since the Islamist uprising in Hama was crushed, the blend of Islam and politics is gaining renewed favor with the new generation of Syrian youth, which will no doubt be enthusiastic about the Hamas victory. There are a limited number of Islamist members of parliament in Syria, while reports suggest that a growing number of young Syrians have been attending weekly prayers in mosques, while more women are wearing the veil and traditional garb while also attending Qura'an classes. One Islamist MP, Mohammed Habash, said, "Almost 30 percent of Syrian men are taking part in Friday prayers in the 9,000 mosques of Syria". Habash also heads the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, and he attests that there is a religious revival and interest in Islamic values. Such signs are often simple outward displays of piety, which in the Muslim world, apart from the choice of conservative clothing and headscarves for women, is shown in restaurants' refusal to serve alcohol. This becomes especially evident in cities with a longstanding secular tradition such as Damascus. Therefore, when some restaurants on the banks of the Barada River, a leisure spot near the Syrian capital, have stopped serving alcohol and 'singles' are segregated, it is not difficult to discern that there is a resurgent sense of piety. 
Bookshops specializing in works on Islamic Sharia law are growing in number, as analysts explain the phenomenon as deriving from the political and social situation in the country. A Syrian left wing writer Akram al-Bunni attributes the Islamic trend, and the Islamic political trend, to Saudi financial aid and the political impediments to outward religious display that in effect had the state "throwing people into the arms of the Islamists". Saudi financing, meanwhile, permitted the building of mosques, in Christian and Druze regions, while a moderate Islamic trend led by people like Habash was articulating social and political concerns in religious terms, without spilling over into 'fundamentalist' territory. Indeed, the Syrian government itself authorized some 300 theological institutes to open their doors and give lessons in mainstream and conventional Islam while keeping watch for extremist elements. The Hamas victory will then be incorporated into this emerging social framework, which will be tolerated so long as it does not assume revolutionary pretensions. Interestingly, the 'Hamas Effect' might convince more Islamists to come to the foreground, as they would sooner seek more democratic mechanisms to increase influence than violent ones. However, the ruling elite's Alawite background might perceive itself as coming under threat from the growing Islamic orthodoxy, even as the state might benefit from increased investment by Sunni Muslim Syrians, who took their business and funds and went to Lebanon when the Alawite Ba'ath party took power in the late 1960's. 
There are signs that a return of Sunni business is indeed underway, as the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Abdullah Al-Dardari, said that in 2006 Islamic banks would open in Syria for the first time. The government had already permitted private banks to operate in Syria in 2002. Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad had issued a decree to grant licenses for Arab banks and financial institutes to establish Islamic banks in the country, with a capital of 100 million US dollars. The Islamic banks had started paper work for obtaining the licenses and presenting all applications to the government. The deputy minister also added that the banking sector in Syria would participate in developing the public monetary sector, to enable it to develop and finance trade and investments in the country. This financial framework should help Syria continue to draw investment interest from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which have poured millions of dollars in a booming construction sector. Syria is effectively offsetting the lack of investment activity from the West by attracting interest from the region. A luxurious sign of this 'strategy' is the new $ 100 million Four Seasons five star luxury resort that opened in January 2006 in Damascus. The hotel was funded by the Syrian Saudi Company for Tourism Investments - owned 35 per cent by the ministry and Damascus municipality, and 65 per cent by Kingdom Holding, the Saudi group of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. 

Hariri Investigation
Serge Brammerts, a Belgian judge, has replaced Detlev Mehlis as head of the investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Damascus had a difficult relationship with Mehlis, who was accused of manipulating the situation to blame Syria for the deadly attack of February 14, 2005. However, president al-Asad has hinted that he might be more willing to cooperate with Brammerts. The Syrian president said the that he would consider meeting the UN Commission inquiring into the murder of Hariri, as long as Syrian sovereignty is safeguarded. Saudi and Egyptian diplomacy had tried to convince al-Asad to cooperate with the UN throughout the fall of 2005, even as the return of the two former heads of the secret services in Lebanon during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, General Roustom Ghazali and Colonel Samih El Kaschaami, were interrogated in Vienna for the second time. According to Beirut's 'Daily Star' Brammerts will interview Syrian officials, while Asad himself may also be interrogated, (pending his approval).

As the new Judge Probes, US Pressure Continues
While distracted by Iraqi election results and the Palestinian elections, the US pressure on Lebanon continued. John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, demanded on January 23, that Syria disband and disarm the Lebanese Hizbollah militias. Bolton says, "I hope in Damascus they read it very carefully and then comply." This, of course, Bolton knows would be very difficult for Syria to achieve as it no longer has an army in Lebanon, since it withdrew last April. No matter, Bolton is not known for his reasonable requests and approaches. As Syria will inevitably fail to accomplish what Bolton has demanded of it, the US will be able to accuse Damascus of supporting terrorism (as it fails to comply) while justifying continued pressure on Syria. To this effect, President Bush met Rafiq Hariri's son Saad Hariri, a Lebanese member of parliament, at the White House to discuss the matter of Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs. Bush brought UN Resolution 1559 to the fore (which Syria has already observed) while also proposing a world donors conference to help Lebanon. In January, the United States gave practical evidence of the noose it is tying around Syria, when it objected to the Indian Oil and Gas Corporation Vides Ltd (OVL) and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) joint purchase of a 37% stake in the al-Frat oil and gas fields in Syria from Petrol-Canada for 573 million dollars. The objection was widely perceived in India as an attempt by the United States to force India and China to comply with its strategy to isolate Iran and Syria. 

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