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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: 045 - (01/11/07)

Syria Could Have Been Helpful in Dealing with the PKK
The Turkish government has adopted what appears to be an irrevocable stance to reject any mediation efforts with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as exhorted by the Iraqi government and the United States. About one hundred thousand Turkish soldiers are massed along the border with Iraq (or rather Kurdistan, as very little of what used to be Iraq survives in the Kurdish dominated areas). Turkey has also given a list of PKK leaders that it wants the government of Iraq (whose president Jalal Talabani is himself a Kurd) to arrest and detain. Meanwhile, there have been reports that Turkish army helicopters have attacked PKK positions within Turkey itself. The United States, Iraq and much of the world are asking Turkey - an important NATO partner - to desist from launching a major offensive. However, if Turkey is concerned about the nascent independent Kurdistan, (even if it is still called northern Iraq), so are Iran and Syria. The issue could erode what were improving relations between the two countries. Indeed, Syria's president Bashir al-Asad has already spoken in favor of Turkey's military action plans against the PKK, while Iraq's president Talabani has already condemned Syria's position in favor of such action. Asad backed Turkey's plans to attack the Kurdish rebels operating out of northern Iraq during a recent visit to Ankara. Syria also borders northern Iraq. Public anger is high in Turkey after recent attacks in the southeast as well as a perception that the United States has failed to back Turkey in its fight with the PKK, even though Washington lists the movement as a terrorist group. 

Syria has an estimated population of 1.7 million Kurds, or some 10% of the country's population. The Kurds have lived primarily in a small area of northeastern Syria near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, where the main cities are Qamishli and Hassaka. About 100,000 Kurds live in Damascus, some have moved recently, while others have lived in the Syrian capital for decades. Unlike their counterparts in Iraq or Iran, Syria's Kurds - at least those of the plains - have been more willing to accept Syrian central authority -rather than the mountain Kurds, who live in mostly in Iran, Iraq but some in Syria also. Indeed, Syrian Kurds have not rebelled against the central authorities in quite the same intensity as those of Turkey, Iran or Iraq. 

The very dangerous crisis that is unfolding in Kurdistan, a fully predictable scenario that analysts presented as a warning long before the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is made all the worse by the inaction on the other issues of the region, foremost among which is the Israeli-Palestinian problem. This is the issue upon which all others hinge even as an international conference is being prepared in Annapolis to discuss 'Middle East peace'. The conference does not have many prospects of succeeding because the organizing party is not interested in balance. Indeed that platform, and its failure, might even serve as the launching pad for an American escapade into Iran, which would inevitably get Syria involved. If peace were truly on the agenda, Israel would be obliged to discuss relinquishing Palestinian land as well as the Golan to Syria. In this context, Syria would be more willing to consider supporting the United States in its efforts to prevent Turkey from tackling the PKK. In a less friendly period of relations with Turkey, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Syrian government backed the PKK against Turkey using its Lebanese training camps in the Bekaa Valley with arms and training. Syria was also helping its Iranian ally deal with Iraq by fomenting Iraqi Kurds against Baghdad - in fact, Syria was especially keen in helping Jalal Talabani (now Iraq's president) and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The Syrian connection to the PKK does not end there. Last January, the PKK appointed Fehman Huseyin, 'Doctor Bahoz', a Syrian Kurd, to lead the People's Defense Forces (the HPG) - the military wing. However, the Syrian Kurdish movement is split between full separatists, made up of the younger recruits and an older group which is much more willing to live in greater autonomy within Syria, even as it maintains a tough stance against Turkey. Huseyin is a member of the latter group. Syria, has it should be remembered, a population of 1.7 million Kurds. In the recent past, Syria was able to deal with occasional Kurdish rebellions by playing on the different factions and loyalties, knowing that it could rely on the split alliances to secure some form of stability. However, as the Kurdish issue has started to affect Turkey in a very important manner - and Syria has cultivated improved relations with Turkey in the past few years - and its principal regional ally of Iran, there is now far less room for accommodation on either side. 

The likely collapse of the balanced 'arrangement' will likely mean the predominance of the younger and more radical wing of the militant recruits who advocate a wider pan-Kurdish campaign fueled by the growing independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and the freedom of movement of the PKK. The radicalization process has been growing in recent years, and as Newnations noted in previous updates (see 2004, 2005) there were Kurdish revolts requiring the intervention of the Syrian armed forces. Meanwhile, as the PKK adopts an ever more hostile stance toward Damascus, it has also been supporting the Iranian Kurdish separatists of the PJAK (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan), which has drawn American interest in order to prick the Iranian government. In hindsight, the very dangerous nature of the PKK problem for the United States would have been more manageable had the Bush administration accepted the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group to establish more - not fewer - official links with Syria and Iran. A more cooperative Syria would have been more reluctant to openly support Turkey's right to stage a cross-border offensive against the PKK in northern Iraq (which is what Bashir al-Asad told his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul). Indeed, Asad added that American led coalition forces in Iraq have the responsibility to curb terrorist attacks stemming from within the country. "Forces that have invaded Iraq's territory are countries that are primarily responsible for the terrorist attacks, because these countries control Iraq." 

Moreover, as the PKK problem becomes more intractable, Washington' appears to have made another blunder in Syria - all but wiping out any chance that Syria might join the Annapolis Conference - in its allegations that the Syrian site hit by Israel last September was a nuclear plant. The NY Times published a photo of the site which gives little indications of any impending Syrian nuclear capability. The neo-conservative establishment had tried to promote the notion that Syria was interested in developing nuclear arms. Syria was accused of having 'imported' Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, while Interpol searched a ship traveling from North Korea to Syria, on suspicion of carrying nuclear material. The ship was actually carrying defensive missile technology and was allowed to proceed. 

Meanwhile, in Lebanon 
The presidential election continues to leave the country's government at a standstill, while the various confessional factions have reportedly started to re-arm in fear (or preparation for) another civil conflict. As if the recent experience at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp which saw a heavily armed Sunni islamist militia battle the Lebanese army (in circumstances that one unlikely theory holds involved a failed plan to challenge Shiite Hezbollah by the Siniora government and Washington). The Christians have also organized their militias and started to stockpile weapons. The next president will be a Christian, because it is mandated by the Constitution that this be so; however, the ultimate issue remains that Christians, Sunnis, Druse, etc; are being increasingly out numbered by Shiites - once the smaller group. The opposition presidential hopeful Gen. Aoun would prefer to see the Christian population accept their growing 'minority' status, while the more 'nationalist' Christians insist on special preferments and privileges - the position of the right wing phalanges. Gen. Aoun is also an ally of the opposition which includes Hezbollah, the side that is supported by Syria. Of course, as has always happened in Lebanon the religious factions attract interest from regional players like Israel, France, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Syria of course. Syrian troops intervened in Lebanon to end its civil war and Damascus dominated Lebanese politics until the assassination of former premier Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 fueling mass anti-Syrian protests. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's backers, including the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, want to replace Lahoud with one of their own. Adding to the tension is Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who asked the United States to impose more sanctions against Syria, warning that Lebanon would not enjoy stability and independence as long as Syrian President Bashar Asad's regime was in power.

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