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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: 048 - (30/01/08)

Stumbling Toward a Resolution? No Peace without Syria
While the Annapolis conference of last November is not expected to lead to a comprehensive peace deal in the Middle East, in January there were signs and developments, which suggest 2008 might offer some surprises for – and from – Syria. The developments are related to an apparent, if not official, re-arrangement of diplomacy in the region. While President Bush – not necessarily the various agencies that make up the US government – continues to play the Iran card, important US allies such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are maintaining friendly relations with Iran. Indeed, of great significance is the fact that Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that his country is rebuilding "in a natural way" a relationship with Egypt. Iran and Egypt have not had full diplomatic ties since the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979. Presidents Mubarak and Ahmadinejad have held a series of telephone conversations during which they reportedly discussed the Palestinian issue and other regional concerns. Iranian-Egyptian ties were especially strained because of Egypt’s diplomatic relations with Israel. To this effect the breach of the Rafah border by Palestinians, and Egypt’s response, which all but betrayed its frustration over Israeli policies in Gaza, might well bring Egypt, Iran and Syria closer together given Syria’s ties to Hamas. The harshness of the Israeli siege is such that the rival Palestinian factions of Hamas and the ANP might also find more reasons to cooperate, increasing Syria’s importance. It was Syria, after all, which worked hardest to bring the two factions together into a government of regional unity in January of 2007 – even if the talks were held in Mecca. 

The breach of the Rafah border by Gazans, rushing to buy basic food, fuel and other products of which they have been deprived because of the Israeli siege symbolized the innate incapacity of the Annapolis process and president Bush’s visit to the Middle East to bring any kind of peace in the Middle East. While Syria did send delegates to Annapolis, and in doing so has earned credit for showing at least interest in any peace process that would agree to discuss its point of view, there can be no question that Syria must be a protagonist in any Middle East peace talks. It cannot be on the sidelines. To continue to present Syria as part of the problem, or even as a potential member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ is an entirely bankrupt concept, which even the Bush administration will have to concede sooner or later. Syria has been ready for peace and if good comes from it at all, Annapolis demonstrated this to all the players. At Annapolis, Syria’s deputy foreign minister stood side-by-side with Israeli and Saudi Arabian delegates, enemies of Iran (Syria’s current leading regional ally chosen less because of cultural affiliations and more because the West’s policy of isolation has pushed Damascus closer to Tehran). In turn, Syria has necessarily maintained its ties to the so-called pro-Syrian camp in Lebanon, most notably represented by Hezbollah. 

Syria - the Most Secular State in the Arab World?
It is often forgotten that Syria remains one of the few secular governments (and societies) in the Arab World. Indeed, amid the odd news that emerged in January is that the Syrian government tolerates unmarried couples living together, a practice that is relatively frequent in Damascus. The government issued a formal statement to this effect also saying that sexual relations between consenting, if unmarried adults, is acceptable under the law. In Syria politics and religion are still separate matters, and that alone makes it far closer to the West than many of the countries that the West presents as allies. The more concrete evidence of Syria’s secular nature is that the country shows considerable respect for other faiths, including the Jewish one, as a few thousand Jews still live in Syria (incidentally there are many Jews still living in Iran also). There are said to be some 20 synagogues in Damascus alone, even if relations with Israel are forbidden. The crucial question is, then, with secular policies such as these, if Syria (largely Sunni) is the main ally of the (Shiite) Islamic Republic of Iran, a state which advertises its theological persuasion in its very name and flag, outside factors have conspired to make this happen. Syria’s social characteristics make it a far more acceptable potential partner for the West than Iran, even if much of Iran’s population also actually lives in a very secular manner. 

Annapolis aside, while Bush was blasting Iran during his visit to the Middle East, Syria’s foreign affairs minister Walid al-Moallem reiterated in January that it is not seeking a military solution for its conflict with Israel and that it is ready to resume peace talks. On December 30, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter who met president Bashir al-Asad in Damascus said that Syria is ready to resume peace talks with Israel, which stopped in 2000. Therefore, while George Bush insists on maintaining the neo-conservative approach of refusing dialogue with Syria, citing its relationships with Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas as the reason, a growing number of influential figures in the US political establishment are adopting a more pragmatic stance toward Syria. In this sense the evident intractability of any progress between Israel and the Palestinians – which might soon be so bad as to push rivals Hamas and Fatah to reach an agreement – is playing to Syria’s advantage; that is regional players like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are growing more impatient with the lack of progress – fearing also for the way that images of Gaza under siege play out with their populations. Regional powers, allies of the United States, will necessarily have to engage more with Syria in 2008, breaking the diplomatic isolation that was virtually imposed after the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Rather than the world having lost patience with Syria, it has lost patience “with Bush’s policies” to quote Syrian minister Moallem. 

The Lebanese Thorn
Lebanon continues to be Syria’s main obstacle to full diplomatic re-integration. Damascus will host the next meeting of the Arab League next March and some progress is needed in Beirut, if Syria wants to maintain diplomatic momentum in its favor. Another attack in Beirut, one that appears to be the latest in a series of episodes where Lebanon is serving as the proxy for a war between the pro-Israeli American front and those of the Syro-Iranian one, has killed police captain Wissam Eid. The ‘war’ effectively began with the attempted murder of the Druze leader Marwan Hamade, now a leader in the March 14 anti-Syrian majority in parliament, peaking with the murder of Hariri in February 2005. There have been some 30 attacks since 2004, none of which have been solved, many with several potential suspects, but all of which have placed a knee-jerk suspicion (in many cases unfounded) on Syria, because most of the victims were close to the March 14 coalition. The clash between the two groups in Lebanon is being played out around the government’s failure to elect a president. Lebanon has been without a president since the end of (pro-Syrian) Emile Lahoud’s mandate last November 24. While many heralded the end of Syrian influence, after the March 14 coalition managed to secure the expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005, it appears that Syria continues to play an important role in Lebanon. 

The presidential issues is made all the more difficult because the Lebanese opposition, which is ostensibly the expression of Syrian influence in Lebanon, demands an agreement on the president as well as the formation of a government of national unity and the partition of important and security portfolios. While both coalitions appeared to have agreed on the appointment of army chief General Michel Suleiman as president, the Lebanese opposition has blocked further progress after the publication of an intelligence report in the United States defusing concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In this context, the Arab League has been working hard to secure the adoption of an Arab plan to set up a power-sharing government in Lebanon which would balance the competing demands of Hezbollah and the March 14 majority group led by Saad al-Hariri. The balance would be held by ministers named by Suleiman. The wrangling over the Lebanese presidency reflects the regional conflict between the United States and its allies on one side and a Syria, Iran and Hezbollah alliance on the other. At a recent Arab League meeting, however, Arab foreign ministers have taken a tougher stance, rejecting the Lebanese opposition, (and Syria's) demand that Hezbollah and its allies have greater influence in Lebanon's Cabinet. Syria’s foreign affairs minister Moallem had promoted the notion of a greater share of power going to the opposition, even within a government of national unity. Talks over Lebanon will continue, but the situation continues to hamper Syria’s full re-integration. The Arab League may manifest its irritation at Syria’s demands – on behalf of its Lebanese ‘clients’ in the opposition – by having Egypt and Saudi Arabia fail to attend the League’s next meeting in Damascus.

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