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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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

Update No: 044 - (02/07/07)

Divide and Rule
Barely a month after the start of renewed tensions in Lebanon with emergence of the Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-bared Palestinian refugee camp just north of Tripoli, an attack against UN Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) killed six peacekeepers - three Spanish and three Colombians - in an apparent roadside bomb attack in southern Lebanon. The attack was met with widespread condemnation even as the intent and identity of the perpetrators remains unknown. Nevertheless, as has been the case from the Rafiq Hariri murder in 2005 to the Nahr al-Bared revolt, the Lebanese government and several western powers have hinted that Syria is involved. The killing of the UNIFIL troops came just after the murder of a prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese member of parliament Walid Eido, in Beirut's beachfront area. The combination of violent events in almost weekly succession suggests someone is trying to push Lebanon closer to civil war and blaming Syria - which is alleged to be reprising against the imposition of an international tribunal to try the Hariri murder (we find this is a 'strained' argument, surely such incidents would make the tribunal ever more likely) - for this undesirable tension, as pro-government factions turned out in force along Beirut's sea front chanting anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah slogans.

The Hamas - Fatah War Damages Syrian Interests
Nevertheless, those behind the murder of anti-Syrian Lebanese MP Walid Eido knew Syria would be blamed, hoping to push the Lebanon closer to civil war. Meanwhile, in the Palestinian Territories, there was a mini-civil war between Hamas and Fatah. This has destroyed the Palestinian government of National Unity formed under Syrian (and Saudi) tutelage in Mecca last winter, all but isolating Gaza as the sole Hamas enclave. The Palestinian split creates more difficulties for Syria as well. The leader of Hamas, Khaled Mesha'al lives in Damascus, and as the West is rallying behind Fatah as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians (at least as far as the 'international community' is concerned), Syrian support for Hamas can be used by the West as a further lever of pressure, while reducing Syrian negotiating power, should talks between Fatah president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Olmert establish the basis for a renewed peace process. Syria is already feeling the pressure brought on by the recent Fatah - Hamas war. A state-run Syrian newspaper criticized former British PM Tony Blair's new appointment as a special Middle East envoy, because he has 'blood-smeared hands'. Blair had said his task would be to prepare the ground for a future Palestinian state as an essential first step toward achieving peace in the region. The editorial in the Tishrin newspaper said "We would not pin great hopes on his mission simply because a war man could never be a peace advocate or peace envoy ... This is the first time throughout history in which we see a peace envoy with hands smeared with innocents' blood." Blair, who has been appointed to his Middle East envoy role by US President Bush, Russia, the UN and the EU, is expected to be working closely with ANP president Mahmoud Abbas. This suggests that Hamas will not be considered in any talks, which adds another diplomatic blow to Syria. 

Syria and Hezbollah Have Nothing to Gain from Attacking UNIFIL
In its condemnation of the attack against UNIFIL, the UN Security Council (SC) demanded that the peacekeeping contingent be especially vigilant in safeguarding the security of UN personnel ensuring that UNFIL can achieve complete freedom of movement in the prescribed area of operations. This area is of course dominated by Hezbollah, suggesting that the SC is suggesting that UNIFIL act to restrict Hezbollah further, which is evidently considered a suspect in the operation. Yet, it would seem improbable that Hezbollah - also implying Syria - is involved. Hezbollah, which has been engaged in establishing its role as a Lebanese political force has indicated it has Lebanese interests at heart. It is unlikely to be willing to stir the regional pot further, prompting renewed tensions in southern Lebanon after last summer's war. In the weeks following the Nahr al-Bared revolt, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke in favor of Lebanese unity, warning about the dangers of military action to end the Islamist revolt in the refugee camp, that to crush Islamist militants under siege by the Lebanese army, would cause grave internal discord. He urged a negotiated settlement: "A military escalation risked", said Nasrallah, "peace and security in Lebanon... it is dangerous for national unity in Lebanon," (as it would stir tensions between the Lebanese and the Palestinians - one of the central aspects of the 1975-1990 civil war). 

Warning of al Qaeda involvement
Nasrallah's reaction came, as the United States rushed delivery of fresh military equipment to the Lebanese army (why did the US government not extend the same offer when Lebanon was under attack from Israel in the summer of 2006…?), leading to fears of possible US direct involvement in Lebanon, as part of another campaign in the 'war on terror. Indeed, Nasrallah warned that direct US involvement in Lebanon, would serve to attract al-Qaeda fighters, just as they have been drawn to Iraq, making Lebanon into another battlefield for the US led war-on-terror. This would seem to be a safe prediction and coming from the leading Shi'ite military group about the Sunni al Qaeda - (no friends of theirs), should be taken seriously.

Moreover, it should be noted that Hezbollah still holds two Israeli military prisoners, meaning that Israel eventually will have to engage in negotiations to secure their release, as part of a prisoner exchange. The seemingly reasonable Lebanese information minister, Ghazi Aridi, said that the UNIFIL attack is directly related to events connected to Fatah al-Islam and the Nahr al-Bared camp, where the standoff continues - in fact it appears to be spreading to other refugee camps in the Tripoli area. As for al-Qaeda, or at least the threat of Sunni radical islamists, the Egyptian lieutenant of the elusive Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri, had encouraged attacks against UNIFIL, while the infamous 'Ansar al-Qaida fi al-Iraq' (Partisans of al-Qaeda in Iraq) founded a related organization 'Qaedat al-Jihad fi al-Lubnan' (something akin to 'leadership of the Jihad in Lebanon). However credible - or incredible - the claims of an al-Qaeda network connected to Bin Laden (is he even still alive?) may be, there has been an emergence of small Sunni based militant organizations in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories in the last year. These include Fatah al-Islam to Jund al-Islam in Gaza, the group claiming to have kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Palestinian Refugee camps provide good cover for such groups; under an Arab League accord from 1969, Palestinians have the right of self defense within the camps, while armies cannot enter the camps themselves. Local as well as foreign militants can enter the camps and avail themselves of the same cover. 

Who (if anyone) is the Puppeteer?
The question remains as to who is manoeuvring these groups, given that some of the incidents arise simply because of warring armed factions, and ever more extreme, irrational religious partisans, bristling with weaponry. When the Nahr al-Bared siege began last May, Syria was predictably indicted as being the puppeteer - which no reading of the actual facts can sustain. The reasonable stance taken by information minister Aridi, does not preclude the current pro-American Lebanese government from blaming Syria as their traditional Pavlovian response to any act of terror in Lebanon. The check-list for any nation state 'directing mind,' for non-spontaneous incidents would have to include Israel as well as Syria and even, via third parties, elements within the US seeking provocations, cannot be totally excluded.

Following the 'cui bono' approach, it can be seen that Syria has no interest in attacking UNIFIL whatsoever. UNIFIL is made up by troops from Spain and Italy, the governments of both of which have been friendly to Syria, more than most in the West. Syria cannot afford to further ruin relations with European leaders, which in the vacuum left by the lack of US engagement, are the only international powers that could help it pursue its own interest of achieving a comprehensive peace process that would include the Golan. Even French President Sarkozy, unlike his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, has offered to talk to Hezbollah and Syria. Why would Syria risk endangering those relations at such an especially delicate period with the threat of a conflict in Iran and the roots of extended Palestinian and Lebanese internal conflicts? 

Syria is also trying to ensure that the EU remains independent of the policies advocated by the Cheney-led White House group and their ilk. Indeed, the neo-conservative movement is still pushing for war with Iran (and Syria would inevitably be drawn into such a war), suggesting that Syria needs EU allies more than ever now. Adding to this prospect, are the frequent Israeli media reports that Syria is preparing for a summer offensive against Israel because it has bought weapons systems from Iran and Russia - including MiG 31-E interceptors, which are considered very capable and are among the fastest available with close to Mach-3 speed. Nevertheless, a Syrian attack on Israel, which they and every one else knows could not succeed militarily, would be so much playing into the hands of the White House war party, as to be totally counterproductive for Damascus, and would set back prospects of a settlement indefinitely. We find this just not even barely credible.

Destabilizing Lebanon further would push the UN Security Council to demand greater UNIFIL action in southern Lebanon, interfering with Hezbollah rather than merely maintaining the peace. UNIFIL - and there is little doubt that this would be the preferred role from the US point of view - would be asked to actively disarm Hezbollah, which in turn would see the force as having less as a neutral peacekeeping role and more as tool of the Siniora government, the USA and Israel. Hezbollah, Syria's main ally in the region now would see its interests threatened. It is highly questionable whether the troop contributing nations to UNIFIL would allow their personnel to disarm Hezbollah, unless it was on a negotiated basis which is not on any horizon. It is almost certain that they would not engage in the fighting implied by any attempts to forcibly disarm Hezbollah fighters. 

Ultimately, this calculus gives added credibility to the notions put forth by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. He has suggested that Saad Hariri's 'Mustaqbal' (The Future) party coalition, backed by the United States and some elements in the Saudi ruling family, have fostered the rise of 'salafist' groups such as Fatah al-Islam to act as a counterbalance to Hezbollah. 

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