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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)

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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: 035 - (03/10/06)

Musings of Peace Continue - With Obstacles Of Course
The rumblings of peace continue in the wake of the summer's Israeli-Lebanese war. Syria is taking advantage of Israel's diminished diplomatic stature to take the lead in offering peace proposals. In an interview with the German magazine 'Der Spiegel,' Syrian President al-Asad continued to hint that his country is ready for conciliation - as he has since the end of the war last August - saying that Syria wants to make peace with Israel. As the July-August war launched by Israel on Lebanon subsides and Israeli troops have returned home (as of October 1, Israel has reportedly complied with UN Resolution 1701), the notion of a renewed round of peace negotiations, as Newnations hinted last month, remains. Syria had proposed resuming peace talks on several occasions, and long before the recent war, only to face predictable objections from Israel and the United States. However, in late September Israeli minister of defence Amir Peretz said, on national radio, that "Syria is the key to stability in the region" noting that the war on Lebanon had left open the opportunity to start dialogue with Lebanon and possibly even Syria. Peretz' conciliatory statements come as the Syrian government, which considered Hezbollah's strategic 'victory' as victory for Syria also, continues to propose ways to achieve a lasting agreement with Israel over the Golan. 

There were fears that Israel would expand its aerial bombardment campaign in Lebanon to Syria, and areas at the Syro-Lebanese border were hit, but there were no direct strikes in Syria proper. However, the degree of physical destruction in Lebanon - despite Hezbollah's survival and 'moral' strengthening - served as a warning to Syria that as detestable the recent war was, it would do well to avoid the devastation of war and to concentrate on the pursuit of co-existence, if not peace. As some members of the Israeli government started to soften their tone, a terrorist attack on the US embassy in Damascus and the swift response by Syrian officials to stop it, earned the rarely proffered (on Syria) praise of the United States itself. Syria also continues to strengthen ties with the increasingly dominant Iran, buoyant from the fact that the United States appears to lack the resolve to stop its development of a nuclear capacity as the Iraqi misadventure has seemingly decreased the country's appetite for more wars - at least until the November mid term elections. An ever stronger Iran would also start to erode Israel's military and diplomatic - US excepted - dominance of the Middle East. Iran may also start to play a more important role in helping to quell the Iraqi civil war, in return for US diplomatic concessions. This would allow the US more room for policy manoeuvre in Iraq itself, possibly even allowing the US to start withdrawing troops, which would play well politically at home. For its part, the USA is still presenting Syria as a troublemaker in the region in public, refusing to honour its conciliatory stance which would earn it significant diplomatic prestige. 

There are Israeli obstacles also. Even as some Israeli Cabinet ministers have indicated a willingness to start dialogue with Syria, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to (at least publicly) raise such a possibility. Olmert also rejected Asad's appeasing remarks, making the usual assertions that Asad has to back his words with deeds, which include the unspecified support for terror (generally meaning Hezbollah and possibly hinting at Washington's accusations that Syria supports Iraqi insurgent groups). Olmert has even suggested that Damascus' overtures are no more than attempts to ease pressure from the United States. Yet, for the price of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, Israel would gain significant regional benefits. Syria would be deprived of an excuse for greater security and, would therefore be less inclined to uphold the mutual defence pact with Iran, while Syria would also draw no advantage from offering continued support for Hezbollah. But domestic, rather than regional politics are holding Olmert back. Olmert and others in his cabinet have been criticized for their handling of the war on Lebanon - in many cases because they have not managed to deliver on the stated purpose of disarming and weakening Hezbollah. Starting peace talks with Syria might be seen as a sign of weakness that would infuriate the so-called Golan lobby in Israel, which wants annexation of the territory. There are also rumours that Olmert is choosing to follow a diplomatic avenue in Saudi Arabia, as press reports indicate an alleged meeting that has taken place between Olmert and a senior Saudi official to discuss Iran's nuclear program and prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are concerned over the growing influence of Shiite power in the region. Israel has also rather unconvincingly suggested that Syria is itself preparing to launch war on Israel, despite the talk of peace from president Asad. In addition, Israel has reportedly raised its threat level after intelligence assessments indicated possible preparations of an attack from Damascus. Asad is claimed to have said that Syria might change its mind on peace one day, should this option become impossible as a way to regain the Golan. But such an option for Syria, seems highly unlikely. Iran, under pressure from the United States - where rumours of a potential war against the country persist - would not support it, as it would inevitably be drawn into the conflict. The talk of war rumblings from Syria, may simply be another way to bolster Olmert's scolded cabinet ministers suggesting negotiations with Syria and can probably be discounted. The world after all knows that Syria cannot compare with Israel in military terms. It makes no sense at all!.

Meanwhile, the long expressed US complaint that Syria supports elements of the Iraqi insurgency has resurfaced as president Asad said that Syria has increased the number of troops on the border with Lebanon, apparently to appease international demands to bolster security following the Israel-Hezbollah war, by shifting forces from its eastern border with Iraq to the Lebanese border. Israel, wanted international troops to deploy on the Lebanon-Syrian border to enforce a ban on the alleged shipment of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah. Syria rejected the idea and the international peacekeeping force has been limited, for the time being, to deployment in southern Lebanon. The United States are not easing prospects of peace talks by continuing to propose the imposition of sanctions. Since May 2004, Washington has applied some sanctions by banning American exports to Syria other than food and medicine, severed banking relations with the Commercial Bank of Syria and barred Syrian flights to and from the United States. The United States still maintains an embassy in Damascus, but it does not have an ambassador there - not since the February 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Condoleeza Rice has suggested recently that the US would like to see other countries impose sanctions also. But it is unclear for how long the United States will be able to maintain this stance toward Syria. Condoleeza Rice is to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories early in October, no doubt in response to Arab countries' perceptions that the US had shown excessive favour toward Israel during its recent war on Lebanon. There is the perceived need for the United States to resume a leading role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian talks. The US needs the support of European and some Arab allies, if it is to achieve any of its goals in Lebanon and Iraq, while diffusing the Iranian nuclear problem. 

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