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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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Update No: 047 - (21/12/07)

Lebanon Hinders Détente
Last November, when the Syria was invited to attend the US sponsored Annapolis conference raised hopes and opportunities for détente between Washington and Damascus. Indeed, it seemed that Syria might be slated for an early integration within the "international community" as France's president Sarkozy also resumed talks with Syria, which since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February has been demoted from an important regional diplomatic player to a de-facto pariah, to be included in the 'Axis of Evil'. 

In order to secure Syria's participation at the Annapolis conference, the United States went as far as allowing for the Golan Heights issue to be included in the agenda; and while few believed any concrete peace agreement would emerge from Annapolis, it was after all 'talks about talks', Syria's invitation suggested that the realists at the US State Department had managed at last to isolate idealist neo-conservatives, finally embracing the Iraq Study Group recommendations to end Syria's isolation proffered over a year earlier. In fact, over the course of 2007, Syria carefully crafted a way out of the international impasse. In March, the US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and representative Tom Lantos visited Damascus where they met president Bashir al-Asad. Another visiting American official, congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican, member of the House Committee on Intelligence spoke of Syria's importance in helping to resolve regional crises. Unofficially, throughout 2007 there has been a sense that Syria is being regarded more and more as part of the solution to the wider Middle East situation, than part of the problem. As far as Syria is concerned, its diplomatic overtures with the West and Syria's help in curbing violence in Iraq would be tied to American support for Syria's efforts to peacefully regain the Golan Heights. 

Another important sign of Syria's international re-integration in 2007 was the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Concerns over Iran's nuclear program in the Arab Gulf States and the emergence of 'Shiite power' after the de-facto Israeli defeat in the war it launched against Hezbollah in July 2006, bolstered Asad's regional influence and efforts by Sunni Arab states to reintroduce Damascus back into the Arab mainstream to further isolate Teheran and Shiite political - military movements. In January Syria and Saudi Arabia brokered a deal to secure a government of national unity between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements. Syria played an important role in securing the blessing of the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, who lives in Damascus. In March, Saudi-Syrian relations improved further at the Arab League summit in Riyadh, where King Abdullah famously criticized US policies in the region, advocating a greater role for Syria. The main issue at the March summit was essential in understanding the context of Syria's invitation to the Annapolis conference and hints at what may be in store for 2008. Allies of the United States in the Middle East (aside from Israel) and especially Saudi Arabia look to a peace deal involving Syria, Palestine and Israel - including the return of the Golan - as a way to wrestle Syria out of its close relationship with Iran. Saudi Arabia has also started to invest in Syria as part of the courtship. Syria also improved relations with Turkey, having signed a signed a free-trade agreement in the spring. Syria has long sided with Turkey in the latter's war against the Kurdish PKK militias; (not so long ago in the mid 1990's, Syria had quietly backed the PKK against Turkey). Syria also secured important deals in the oil industry in 2007. While Syria has been running out of light oil reserves and its refineries are unable to meet demand, India has signed a deal with Syria to explore, produce and refine petroleum products. The state run Indian Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) offered to assist the Syrian Petroleum Company (SPC) to increase extraction of heavy oil through proprietary company techniques.

Prospects for 2008
Having noted the regional and international diplomatic efforts to bring Damascus back into the "international community" and away from Iran's orbit, Syria may lose some of the diplomatic leverage afforded by its alliance with Iran. A report issued by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in December humiliated president Bush and vice-president Cheney. The NIE indicated that Iran's president Ahmadinejad had been truthful and that Iran's military nuclear ambitions had been abandoned in 2003. The NIE report effectively disintegrated the Neo-conservative case for starting a war against Iran. The NIE report also noted that were the Iranians to re-activate their nuclear program, they might have a weapon ready not before 2015. The report is very powerful because of its sharp contrast with Bush's claims last September that an unchecked Iran would be free to develop nuclear weapons such as to provoke "World War III". Even less savvy American observers could not fail to compare that assessment (in the wake of the NIE report) with the Cheney's angry 2002 warning of the cost of not invading Iraq, given Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD's and the notorious yellowcake uranium from Niger, needed to make a nuclear bomb. The publication of the NIE report, whatever else, is evidently also a message from the American intelligence establishment to the president and his advisors, that the US Intelligence community as a whole would not go along with providing spurious grounds for another war in the Middle East. 

The report has further eroded what little credibility Bush and Cheney had left and while, the neo-conservative 'intellectuals' and the Israeli leadership continue to warn of Iran's dangers, it is doubtful that anyone will pay any serious attention to it as a imminent threat, but rather as a matter for the incoming administration. The White House has been cornered on Iran, and there is a potential for a more pragmatic American foreign policy in the Middle East. However, this suggests that Washington's efforts to revive the Middle East peace process as the keystone to contain Iran will no longer work. Ostensibly, the Annapolis process was less about an Israeli-Arab peace process than it was about rallying Arab governments to form a joint front with Israel against Iran. In this scenario, Syria could have played the highest card, short of getting the Golan back, in obtaining the most concessions to shed its Iranian allies. If it was already a monumental task to convince the Arabs that Iran is a greater threat to them than Israel, the NIE report has all but eliminated any chance of this happening in the current Middle East context. The more likely scenario is that Iranian relations with the Gulf States will improve, while Syria will find it easier to secure Arab support for its own causes, benefiting from greater regional investment and diplomatic support. Of course, the United States would be able to get far more out of Syria if it were serious about 'persuading' Israel to return the Golan Heights; and have more chance of meaningful results emerging from Israeli-Arab peace process started at Annapolis. 

The Lebanese Thorn
The main thorn against a full diplomatic re-integration for Syria remains Lebanon, and the continuing political crisis there, suggests Lebanon has not yet escaped the threat of implosion, which would inevitably involve Syria as well. In December, Syria's process of rapprochement with the West suffered another blow after yet another political assassination in Beirut. Major General Francois al-Hajj drove past a car packed with 35 kilograms of TNT last week, which exploded, killing him and three of his colleagues. General Hajj led the Lebanese military operation against the Sunni militant group Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, was a prime candidate to replace former army chief Michel Suleiman, who may be a compromise candidate to replace Lahoud as president. Syria was targeted right away in the familiar knee-jerk reaction style that has marked every single political assassination in Lebanon since Rafiq Hariri was killed in February 2005. 

Robert Fisk from the "Independent" noted, to his surprise, that although "the Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi blamed the Syrians for the assassination, that interestingly, and with great concern for his use of words, Walid Jumblatt, who has constantly blamed the Syrians for attacks on democratic politicians in Lebanon, did not do so. Nor did Marwan Hamadi, one of Mr. Jumblatt's parliamentary colleagues." Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and the most prominent leader of the Druze community, has also been one of the most outspoken anti-Syrian politicians and has backed the 'anti-Syrian' March 14 Alliance, led by Saad Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq. It is also speculated that it was the militants of Fatah taking revenge for their many members killed in the refugee camp.

Syria's attitude toward Lebanon has now become the standard against which its willingness to cooperate with the US and the West is measured and every political assassination is used as evidence to discredit it. The fact is that Syria has always resented the severance and never really accepted that its former province of Lebanon (earlier awarded to France after the post WWI seperation from Turkey), was entitled to independence, and has continually interfered in the affairs of this small republic. That is of course not the same as allotting blame for this long succession of political murders on Damascus when Lebanese internal politics has always been lethal and complicated by all manner of family, let alone tribal and religious feuds. There have in addition always been suspicions about the long arm of Israel, or other potential provocateurs, aiming precisely on having the blame for such outrages attached to Syria, thus pushing them towards international pariah status, but does suggest that guilt is not established because of knee-jerk accusations. 

Yet, if the previous and all unsolved political assassination cases have not raised questions about accusations against Syria, this latest one should give many reasons to doubt this practice. Gen Hajj, a Christian Maronite, was seen as quite friendly with Hezbollah and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun and as noted earlier led the effort against a radical and violent Sunni organization without any ties to Hezbollah. Syria promptly condemned the killing of Hajj, as it did for all other recent murders, noting that Israel blew up Hajj's car in 1976 in southern Lebanon after he refused to cooperate with its allies. Hajj would also have facilitated general Suleiman, current head of the army, becoming Lebanon's president; Hajj was widely expected to replace Michel Suleiman. 

The continuing political crisis in Lebanon will continue to have a negative influence on Syria's relations with the West, but regional actors appear more reluctant to trust the irresponsible reporting that has followed most of the assassinations that have taken place in Lebanon over the last three years. To this day UN investigators have yet to formally issue a statement proving the guilt of Syrian intelligence officials as implicated in the killing of Hariri or any of the other figures killed in Lebanon since February 14, 2005.

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