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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: 055 - (01/06/08)

The Golan: A Regional Power Shuffle or a Trap?
Israel and Syria have started talks, mediated by the Turkish government, for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights (up to the boundary of June 4, 1967, before the start of the Six-Day War), in return for a full peace. The Golan territory consist of about 1,200 square kilometers of land, which have a high strategic value because of their water resources – the land to be returned goes as far as lake Tiberias, Israel’s largest fresh water resource – and because the territory has about 18,000 settlers, which Israel dispatched to the area (which fundamentally differs from the approach used to settle the West Bank, promoted by religious activism). The less ideological nature of the settlers in the Golan makes this area much easier to vacate, further isolating the Jewish settlers in Palestinian territories, given that the latter are far less popular among regular Israelis than the former. The United Nations resolution 242, issued after the 1967 war, obliges Israel to withdraw from the Golan. 

In such discreet talks, Israel and Syria may achieve what they could not in the limelight of Camp David in 2000 after negotiations over the return of the Golan collapsed, as Israel was unwilling to concede the entire territory. tThis was a time when Sharon was in his heyday, being egged on by Cheney. While, Israeli or Syrian leaders have not held any formal talks yet, representatives of both governments have talked about the plan in Ankara. Israel and Syria have been in a formal state of war since 1948, since the birth of Israel itself. Israeli prime minister Olmert and Syrian foreign affairs minister Walid al-Moallem made almost simultaneous announcements about the talks, issuing very similar statements, adding credibility to the surprise development. Turkey has good relations with both Syria and Israel and the fact that it is mediating between them is very important. Turkey’s prestige is also at stake, adding credibility to the talks and the two contending parties’ intentions. From the wider regional context, there is no doubt that apart from peace with an important neighbor, the full return of the Golan would weaken two important relationships in Damascus.

Improving Relations with Europe
Peace with Israel would automatically make Syria’s mutual defense agreement with Iran obsolete, weakening the Damascus-Tehran relationship, and facilitating any military option that Israel may want to use to end Iran’s nuclear program. In one scenario, the United States would also be better able to take their own action, by enforcing a naval blockade against Iran, which would be interpreted by president Ahmadinejad, as being a declaration of war, and inevitably lead to retaliation in the Gulf. Indeed, speculation that the US will attack Iran before the end of the Bush presidency has not subsided. 

While the EU has also resisted the US pressure to impose economic sanctions on Syria, choosing to maintain some political and diplomatic contact, it has remained Syria's biggest trading partner. Syria, however, has not signed an association agreement with the EU as part of the Barcelona Process for nine Mediterranean countries. Syria was kept out largely because of its perceived threat to Israel through support of Hamas and Hezbollah. In other words the Lebanese situation has, until very recently, complicated matters for Syria in its relationship with the EU, particularly with France. Syria will now expect its due rewards for its talks with Israel and the resolution of the Lebanese crisis. Syria will look to Europe as an even more important partner, which may help Asad complete the reforms to liberalize the economy. A resolved Golan issue also suggests that any links that Syria might continue to maintain with Hamas would be less militant, and more directed toward facilitating talks and negotiations to achieve peace. Syria has always demanded deeper EU involvement and strong commitment to counteract the US presence in the Middle East, to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peace between Israel and Syria would make EU engagement in this direction easier to justify; indeed, Europe would be morally obligated to act accordingly, under such auspices. In the days after the Golan announcement, there were signs of an emerging spring in EU-Syrian relations, as the Syrian foreign affairs minister Moallem received a phone call from European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. France, which held the toughest line toward Syria in the post-Hariri assassination period, is considering signing a partnership agreement between Syria and the European Union, as well as a visit by Kouchner to Damascus. 

Making New Friends
The Golan peace would no doubt help reintegrate Syria in the international community and abandon some of its regional policies and allies. Should the Golan be restituted as part of the Ankara talks, it would also weaken Syria’s links to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Occupied Territories. The timing is propitious. Even as Israel and Syria were holding backdoor talks in Turkey, there was a hint of what form a continued crisis would assume in Beirut, as Hezbollah militias fought against their Sunni counterparts after the government (led by the Sunni Fouad Siniora), tried to break Hezbollah’s independent telecommunications network. Under heavy lobbying from the Arab League, the US, France and the Lebanese feuding parties went to Doha, Qatar. After six days of talks, the parties agreed to elect Michel Suleiman as president, averting the political crisis in that country from becoming a civil war on the scale of the 1975-1990 conflict - which drew Syria’s involvement into the country in the first place. But Hezbollah would get the last word, finally obtaining a more important role for the opposition in the Lebanese government, and the ability to veto any resolution that runs against the interests of Hezbollah. Hezbollah also retains, for the time being, its weapons. In other words, Hezbollah has finally obtained the political fruits (even though there will not be any parliamentary elections to oust the majority led by Saad Hariri) of its standoff with Israel in July-August 2006. 

Syria had already backed Suleiman's election, preferring him to General Aoun, because of the latter’s anti-Syrian stance while living in exile in Paris during the 1990’s. Under the current geo-political balance Syria has also earned a victory, given that Hezbollah has the most to show for the Doha talks. It was just a day after the successful conclusion of the Doha talks that Damascus, Tel Aviv and Ankara announced that they had held talks of their own in Ankara. The combination of the two sets of talks should also weaken the resolve of the pro-US majority led by Saad Hariri, who is very likely to replace Fouad Siniora as Lebanese prime minister, to pursue the investigation of the murder of Rafiq Hariri against Syria at the International Court. The resolution (for the time being anyway) of the Lebanese crisis with a president that pleases both camps, should also ease relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Paradoxically, so does the prospect of peace between Syria and Israel, because Syria has relied on Hezbollah as its attack dog on the very goal of regaining the Golan. 

A Syrian-friendly government in Lebanon and a renewed pride in having finally secured – peacefully – the Golan, would also strengthen the presidency of al-Asad at the expense of the Baath hardliners, enabling the president to resume the reform process started by his father at a time also marked by optimism for the Golan. Surely, the neo-conservatives and all former or current US Administration officials, who have lobbied for overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, will not be pleased. Peace between Israel and Syria would be an unwelcome surprise for the neo-cons, which may also explain the (unproven) accusations that Syria was building a nuclear reactor in the middle of the desert. 

A Trap Lurking in the Background?
The neoconservatives insist that this is the case and the IAEA has asked to inspect the offending facility. Israel’s most famous neo-conservative, Cheney’s favourite, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Olmert’s opponent, is waiting like a vulture, should Olmert’s peace plan fail, so Israel must act quickly for it to succeed. The timing of Olmert’s corruption revelations might be suspicious as it could be said to be designed to derail the Syro-Israeli peace talks, rumors of which were floating for months. The ideal neo-conservative scenario would see Olmert failing and Netanyahu taking over as prime minister, waging war on Syria, rather than giving up even an inch of the Golan. Should Olmert be pressured to rescind or deny Israel’s willingness to trade the Golan for peace, Syria would find itself in an unenviable position. While it may be able to maintain some gains in its relationship with Europe, because of the more stable situation in Lebanon, the very intention of holding talks with Israel will have already damaged relations with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, even if neither one has publicly issued any statements in this sense – Iran indeed has publicly stated that it would be good for Syria to regain the Golan. For his part, Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas supreme leader based in Damascus, made a surprise visit to Tehran over the weekend following the announcement of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

The United States, whose diplomatic influence in the Middle East is in freefall, appeared to be annoyed by the announcement. The White House delivered a statement of veiled neutrality, suggesting that the US has been left out of the entire plan and that the Golan withdrawal proposal is a purely Israeli plan. The lack of US enthusiasm also suggests that the United States would not change its attitude toward Syria; in other words, Damascus and its regime remain very much within the Axis of Evil as far as the Bush administration is concerned. Nevertheless, the plan has potential pitfalls, all owing to Israeli internal politics, involving both the right and left wings in parliament. A Labor Party representative has implied that the talks to relinquish the Golan are part of a strategy by Olmert to deflect attention away from his judicial troubles in a brewing corruption scandal, to win the support of the many citizens who actually do desire peace. The right wing of Olmert’s own Kadima coalition inevitably opposes the return of any Israeli territory, anywhere, ever! It agrees with the Left in suggesting that the Golan return is also a smoke and mirrors tactic to deflect attention away from his judicial affairs. Syria could find itself in a weaker position than before. Moreover, President al-Asad’s credibility with the Syrian Baathist hardliners will be further compromised. The latter would hold Asad responsible for the failure, for having trusted the Israelis and for having compromised its current regional allies. The Golan is an appetizing solution, but it could also be a trap for Damascus. Israel conceivably might end up not having to return an inch of land while weakening Syria’s position – and possibly that of other regional players. 

So there is much to win …or to lose for both parties in these negotiations.

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