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SYRIA

 
  
  

 

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: 036 - (02/11/06)

Playing the Syria Card
If there were still any doubts that Israel's war against Lebanon last summer and Washington's unbridled support have completely backfired, where Syria is concerned, a series of quiet diplomatic initiatives over the course of October have started to reverse the neo-conservative policy Washington and its close allies have pursued against Damascus in the past few years. Syria has not been officially described as a member of the 'Axis of Evil' club but Washington had essentially cut relations since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005 - blamed on Syrian intelligence, though never proven. Syria's growing distance from Washington drew it closer into the sphere of Iran, and the two countries have signed agreements in matters of mutual defence, supply of resources and industry. This alliance was further strengthened by the war that Israel launched against Hezbollah last summer. Rather than weaken Hezbollah, the war strengthened the movement and bolstered Syria's strategic and diplomatic position in the region. In the few months after the war, even Israeli cabinet ministers had indicated that some sort of negotiations with Syria to would be necessary to ensure regional stability, the idea being that if diplomatic isolation from the West brought Syria closer to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, a rapprochement might be the most effective way to weaken those links. Hardliners in Washington have continued to toe the neo-conservative line, refusing to even consider talks with Syria, but as Republicans are facing increasing pressure over Iraq and the possibility of an electoral defeat in Congress and the Senate, Republican foreign affairs pragmatists have started to rethink the United States' relationship with Syria. In late October, president Bush still rejected the idea of engaging Syria diplomatically. 

Hawks vs. Pragmatists
Yet, 'old school' Republicans such as former US secretary of state James Baker, who heads the congressionally appointed task force the Iraq Study Group, was cleared by the White House to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in New York, suggesting that there is some flexibility - at least through indirect channels - to talk to Syria. Mr. Baker's commission is said to be thinking about making significant changes to US policy in Iraq. One of the changes envisages engaging Iran and Syria to facilitate a gradual withdrawal of US troops. Offering 'carrots' to Damascus would also help weaken its growing ties to Tehran. For his part, in public at least, Bush, in a fit of myopia, has repeated the administration's cliché position that Syria must stop interfering in Lebanon and undermine Prime Minister Seniora (as though Israel's war on Lebanon last summer had not done considerably more than 'undermine' the Lebanese government). The mid- term elections and the pressing need to find a solution in Iraq may ultimately give Baker greater room for manoeuvre with Syria. The State Department has a more pragmatic approach in mind, one that would include talks with Syria, but the neoconservative elements in the National Security Council, particularly assistant secretary of state Elliot Abrams, and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, notably his national security adviser, John Hannah, and Middle East specialist David Wurmser are still adamant that talks with Syria be rejected.

Crying Wolf ?
It would appear that the V-P's position is in the ascendant as the White House spokesman has just issued a dramatic warning that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah are planning to take over the government of Lebanon. It is of course election time in the US and this might just be a call for all pro-Israeli electors to remember to vote, or more likely a part of the build-up of national paranoia on which Republican election tactics depend.
Whatever, it has the feel about it that Cheney's oft-repeated untruth had, when years after he must have known it was untrue (everybody else did), he sought to include Iraq along with the 9/11 plotters.

The apparent terrorist attack in Damascus, foiled by Syrian security, was praised by the state department, and could have served as a platform to start building trust, but it is believed that the 'hawks' close to the White House refused to soften their stance, as their policy continues to be one of regime change. However, there is little to suggest anything of the sort is likely. Thanks to Hezbollah's diplomatic victory, which was presented as a victory for Syria in Damascus, and the disaster that has been the regime change experiment in Iraq, it is unlikely Syrians would welcome outsiders or even insiders to effect regime change now. 

As a final push toward engaging Damascus, the Financial Times reported that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has also decided that the time has come to engage Syria diplomatically. Blair has sent Sir Nigel Sheinwald, his most senior foreign policy adviser, to Damascus to meet president Bashar al-Assad and other regime representatives in what is the highest-level meeting between the British government and the Asad regime since 2003. The meeting should help Blair evaluate the sincerity of Syria's suggestions to participate in a potential Middle East peace process - which Syria has indicated on several occasions. It seems that the European nations are of a different view to the White House, less driven by the Israeli lobby, on how to approach Syria in the wider context of middle east peace.

The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, also supports the idea of engaging Damascus and Tehran, as he believes their influence might help curb the violence in Iraq favouring stabilization. 

One of the main points of contention that holds against Damascus, when it refers to interference in Seniora's government, is that Syria has not yet demarcated the border with Lebanon as demanded by the United Nations after removing its troops in April 2005. However, marking the border is not a straightforward matter, as it is both difficult to determine the actual border itself and such a demarcation would also raise a number of land ownership issues, as Lebanese and Syrians have been living side by side for decades without demarcation. Western powers carved out Lebanon from what was known as Greater Syria only in 1920.The open border, which runs along the Anti Lebanon mountain range also served as a conduit for smuggled goods and currency into Syria, which had a closed economy - until more recently, when reforms have started to open it. Syrians smuggle fuel into Lebanon. In addition, the Lebanese construction and farming sector depends on Syrian workers, who walk across the border every day. There is also the contentious matter of the Shebaa Farms occupied by Israel, which is considered Syrian territory by the United Nations. Damascus and Beirut regard the area as occupied Lebanese land. 

Enter 'Lieberman' - a sour note in the proceedings 
Nevertheless, there is another obstacle to talks with Syria. If some Israeli cabinet ministers, such as defence minister Peretz had indicated an opening to Syria last September, the Israeli parliament has voted an ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel, Our Home, YB), into the governing coalition. The party is led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has been sworn in as one of several deputy prime ministers. More significantly, Mr. Lieberman has been appointed to serve as the minister in charge against strategic threats against Israel. Internal disputes and condemnations from leftist and Arab Israelis aside, the inclusion of YB in the ruling coalition and the appointment of Mr. Lieberman a defence role do not bode well for any Israeli willingness to participate in peace talks.

What some Israelis say about Lieberman
Some members of the Knesset and newspapers like Haaretz have described the appointment of Lieberman in less than optimistic terms: "the most dangerous politician in our political history," "the most unrestrained and irresponsible man around," a hawk, a hardliner, Israel's far right leader, extreme and ultra right-winger, a "fascist" and a leader of a "fascist party," a "detestable racist," "unguided missile" and a "loose cannon," "Lieberman's lack of restraint (is) … liable to bring disaster down upon the entire region," Israeli Haaretz editorial warned on Oct. 24. 

Lieberman has opposed the 'Road Map' for a two-state solution, endorsed by US President George W. Bush. Lieberman has also said that he opposes peace deals where Israel gives back occupied land to Arab adversaries, an attitude that would be difficult to reconcile with the current rumours of peace talks and negotiations with Syria or any other Arab neighbour for that matter. The Syrians have raised their concerns over the inclusion of the YB party to the government coalition, and fear that Israel could start a war against Syria and that for the time being on this account, the Israeli government's intentions cannot be trusted. The Syrian Defence Minister raised his army's alert level following IDF training exercises and a visit by the head of the Israeli army, Dan Halutz, to the Golan Heights in late October. 

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