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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

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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: 034 - (01/09/06)

The Crossroads
The Israeli (and American) failure to secure a decisive victory against Hezbollah in Lebanon has shuffled the diplomatic cards in the region. Israel would have won either by dealing a decisive blow to Hezbollah's military infrastructure - defeating and demoralizing its army in battle - or by having the Lebanese people themselves turn on Hezbollah for having provoked the Israeli invasion itself. The latter strategy had worked for the first weeks of Israel's offensive in Lebanon in 1982, when the target for disarmament was the PLO and Yasser Arafat played the role currently held by Hassan Nasrallah. That campaign famously backfired, as the PLO, which fled to Tunis, would eventually be replaced by radicalized Shiite militias, setting the stage for Hezbollah's emergence in the mid 1980's. Today, if Lebanon's Shiite areas marked by the presence of Hezbollah lay in rubble, the group's popularity with the people of Lebanon (Shiites, Sunnis and even some Christians) and its political weight have both soared. Hezbollah already had two ministers in the current Lebanese government led by prime minister Hanna Siniora, but its newly gained military prestige and its ability to intervene quickly and generously to help many people rebuild their houses and villages will demand some political clout in return. It may even be necessary for the Ta'if accords, which marked the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, to be 'updated' to reflect Hezbollah's newly won prestige. Given the support that Hezbollah receives from Syria (at least as a conduit for military equipment transfers from Iran); Syria's regional prestige also increased after Israel was 'persuaded' to accept a ceasefire on August 13. Indeed, Syria has tried to benefit from the post-war scenario. 

In the fallout from the murder of Rafik Hariri, the investigation of which has all but stalled because of Israel's offensive, Syria feared that as Lebanon moved ever closer to the United States and the West, Lebanon might be tempted to conclude a separate peace treaty with Israel. Syria has reiterated, under both presidents Hafez and Bashir as-Asad, that it favors a multilateral and comprehensive Middle East peace deal. However, Israel's attacks, which did not spare Christian or Sunni areas, and which left billions of dollars in damages, would preclude a Lebanese - Israeli peace treaty in the manner of Egypt or even Jordan. American cooperation, if not active support, for Israel's recent war on Lebanon also showed Lebanon that the current US government could not be trusted, despite all the praise for Lebanon's 'Cedar Revolution' of 2005. In an interview Lebanon's pro-West Prime Minister Hanna Seniora suggested that Lebanon might even be the last Arab country to sign a peace with Israel. Seniora also made very conciliatory statements about Hezbollah's role in defending Lebanon, sentiments also shared by the Christian Gen. Michel Aoun, who has backed Hezbollah during the recent war. More significantly, despite some media attempts in the United States to filter criticism, the recent war in Lebanon has been a public relations disaster for Israel on both the humanitarian and the strategic - military fronts. The images of widespread destruction of infrastructure, environmental disasters (the oil spill extending from Byblos into the Syrian coast), and several hundred civilian dead left the world an image of vengeful fury, accented by the fact that Hezbollah has not been disarmed. In fact, Hezbollah has emerged stronger on all fronts from the war. Militarily, it achieved a great success, for in the Middle East, to put it in terms of football, a draw for an Arab side plays like a win to the people. Hezbollah, no doubt thanks to Iranian funding, has also been quick to help families left homeless by distributing some US$15,000 to each of them, such that they may rent and furnish an apartment for a year. Hezbollah has also rushed to assess the damage and start the clean-up and reconstruction process. One wonders how images of Hezbollah's resolve and effectiveness played in New Orleans, where the reconstruction effort has been bogged down amid a number of problems. Therefore, Israel's plans to have the people turn on Hezbollah for drawing Lebanon into the war failed dismally - at least for now. 

In Israel, the public perception has tended toward interpreting the recent military adventure in Lebanon as a failure. It failed to achieve its objectives and the invulnerability and swift success of the IDF is a part of Israeli mystique.
There have been calls for prime minister Olmert, defense minister Peretz and foreign affairs minister Livni to resign, while the strategy of the military chief of staff Dan Halutz - an air force pilot and commander - has been widely blamed for the failure to stop Hezbollah. In the United States, let alone the rest of the world, there have been voices criticizing the administration for failing to talk to Syria, directly or through intermediaries. The criticisms, predictably, have come from both the traditional conservative and pragmatist schools of diplomacy, such as the Brookings Institute and they have highlighted what Syria has been trying to promote for the past three years. Syria, as noted frequently in Newnations, wants to be treated as an important regional player in the context of a comprehensive peace process that would establish a Palestinian state, define borders with Lebanon and restore the Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms to Syria. The alternative might well be a resumption of Israel's war, except that a second offensive would likely not spare Syria. So long as the Bush administration remains in power (though should the power in the Senate and the House shift in favor of Democrats and anti-war candidates as the Joe Lieberman's loss at the primaries might imply, this could change) there remains a possibility that Israel might even opt for a second round of fighting in Lebanon. It might even bring the war to Syria. The international community' understands this and there is a sense, particularly within the European Union, that the Middle East is at a crossroads, hence their preparedness to send troops to occupy a cordon sanitaire. The time to start a comprehensive peace process that would include the Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Syria is now. 

The urgency of the process is felt strongly in Syrian power circles. In a speech to the press after the August 13 ceasefire, Bashir al-Asad reiterated the need for a quick restitution of the Golan, while also suggesting - clearly - that military action would be an option if peaceful means were to fail. This was the first time in 33 years that a Syrian leader mentioned the possibility of military action by name. It is unlikely that he would overwork this threat as Israel would find it far easier to destroy his conventional forces, rather than the elusive squads of highly mobile Hezbollah guerillas.

Syria after all has political objectives which are negotiable. For the past 33 years, the return of the Golan Heights has been one of the pillars of Syrian politics. Israel's failure to defeat Hezbollah on the battlefield has given Syria the necessary confidence to take a bolder position on the Golan. The notion of a peace conference that would put the Shebaa Farms, the Golan, a Palestinian state, in other words a return to the pre-1967 borders in return for Israel's security, will gain impetus in the forthcoming months, but its main impediment is within Israel itself, where opinion is so divided that there is no political majority for this, nor yet for any other fundamental decision to permanently settle the future of the region. This US administration will do nothing to alienate the Israeli lobby back home, but will likely support any measure that emanates from Jerusalem. That results in stasis! 

But peace conferences apart, it would be a very shrewd Israeli move to take Syria out of the equation by reaching a political concordat, thus taking away a major prop of Hezbollah, but it would have to be a generous settlement for Syria to break with Iran, one of its very few international friends. 

Syria believes that time is on its side, while Israel's considerable violations in recent months have fueled more hatred and mistrust, such that its negotiating strength might actually have weakened. If Israel does not change course, continuing instead to fuel animosity, it shall condemn its people to many more years of hostility instead of security. Therein rests the problem of UN Resolution 1701, which mandates the current ceasefire but considers largely the concerns of Israel. Despite calls from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for Israel to the contrary, Israel continues its aerial and naval blockade of Lebanon, apparently without just cause. It continues to hold some territory and has violated the ceasefire (the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border), they said to interdict the re-supply of ordnance. Israel appears to have the faculty of resuming attacks - with the purpose of preventing any alleged weapons supplies to Hezbollah, whose stocks must be massively depleted. 

However, UN Resolution 1701 also provides for a multinational peacekeeping force, which is already heading to Lebanon. The force, which will operate under the auspices of UNIFIL (UN Force in Lebanon), faces an enormous challenge, even if the question of disarming Hezbollah is not resolved. Is this a task to be entrusted to the Lebanese army? Whatever, the future of the Lebanon depends to large extent on whether the state has a monopoly of armed violence, which it has never had - every one of its numerous religious and political factions has maintained its own armed militia - Hezbollah the Shiite faction, with Iranian support had just become the most effective. That is a big question and there is an irony in that the one force that could physically have disarmed all the militias was the Syrian army, who after the Rafik Hariri assassination were hounded out of Lebanon by international pressure. Everyone pays lip service to the concept of a state monopoly of armed warriors, the national army in other words, but it probably isn't going to happen (the Israelis couldn't manage it), unless the UN force take that on! 

Moreover, Syria has strongly objected to the deployment of the peacekeepers near its borders, to which Prime Minister Seniora has agreed. The force made up largely by Italy, France and Spain, initially under French command, also marks a diplomatic shift in favor of the EU in the Middle East region, in a sense displacing the United States. The EU has found a renewed impetus and 'unity' on the issue of Lebanon. Even as the USA has not yet declared defeat in Iraq (in the manner of Vietnam), its Middle East adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are in a quagmire. Meanwhile, Iran's president Ahmadinejad has started to issue, defiant, but more pragmatic statements about its planned use of nuclear power. In a recent speech, he said that Iran does not intend to use it against its 'Zionist Enemy', suggesting that it would favor a comprehensive approach to peace in the manner often suggested by Syria, emboldened by Israel's wounded image, which breaks its presumption of invincibility. Israel's war in Lebanon, therefore, has started to shake a number of political and military assumptions that had developed over the past five years, and this evident flux now provides the impetus to find the way to peace again - nowhere more than in Israel itself. There the lesson may have been learned by some, after 4000 missiles rained down on their land and that those who did it remain undefeated, that military force will not in itself, provide the regional peace and stability for which their people yearn. 

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