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  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)

Books on Syria


Update No: 058 - (03/09/08)

Syria’s Military Gamble to Achieve Peace with Israel & the ‘Georgian’ Opportunity
Syria is intent on concluding a peace accord with Israel as soon as possible. In August, the Israeli and Syrian media have been rife with reports concerning the Israeli government’s desire to negotiate a withdrawal from the Golan in order to reduce Syria’s ties to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. While the United States have yet to participate, even as observers, in the informal Syro-Israeli talks that have been taking place in Turkey under the auspices of the prime minister Recep Erdogan. The talks be gan before the summer and they have not yielded any concrete results because Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is in a weak position. He will resign shortly and will have to discuss the scope and extent of the talks with his successor. Moreover, should the opposition win an inevitable election in early 2009 with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, any progress in the pace talks would be undone. The lack of a strong international sponsor such as the United States makes this an even more likely prospect. Turkey itself is facing a delicate internal position, concerned as it is with a resurgent Kurdish separatism highlighted by the PKK raids in Turkey and corresponding Turkish counterattacks in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Accordingly, Syria has taken advantage of the dispute between Russia and Georgia last August to increase the stakes for Israel in what is likely an attempt to accelerate the negotiations. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in retaliation for the latter’s invasion of South Ossetia, it was determined that Georgia had received important military equipment from Israel such as drone bombers. Russian press reports have commented that while both the sides are using Soviet T-72 tanks and Sukhoi-25 jet fighters, the Georgian variants have been upgraded with night vision capability likely supplied by Israeli defense contractors. Russia has responded to the Israeli sales by making some of its more sophisticated weapo n systems available for sale to Syria as well as Iran. Notably, Russia could relax its self-imposed export ban on the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system; a system which provides an effective insurance policy against possible US or Israeli air attacks. Syria has also offered its port cities to serve as bases for Russian warships. 

However, while the world has doubtless gotten very close to a new ‘cold war’ on account of Georgia, Russia may not be very keen to fuel it, and would therefore refrain from selling purely offensive capability weapons to Syria or even Iran. Russian military spending is a fraction of that of the United States, and while the former has more active nuclear warheads, it would have to devote excessive resources over a very long period, to rebuilding their armed forces rivaling that of the United States. It was the exorbitant level of defence spending that perhaps more than anything else, brought down the Soviet Union – Russia will hardly go down that path again.

Still, even by offering ‘defense-only’ missiles to Syria, Russia has broken a long-held agreement between Russia and Israel ensuring that Russia would not offer any weapons that would imply an important strategic advantage. The evidence that Israel has been supplying and advising the Georgian military has changed the game. Syria now has the opportunity to secure a powerful ally – one it has not had since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, while Russia has also implied it would be willing to sell sophisticated missile defense systems to Iran. Also, the Syrians may also be looking to Russia to replace its reliance on Iran, which has played the ‘protector’ role in the past few years as Syria found itself more isolated after US allegations of Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs and political murders. 

Russia has made a “political decision” to support Syria militarily; also securing the latter’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. From Israel’s point of view, the new Russian arms risk falling into the hands of Hezbollah or even Hamas. Nevertheless, it is precisely Syria’s stronger military position that may give it the necessary advantage to push a peace agreement with Israel, which would see a greater urgency in concluding peace, because of Syria’s additional military strength. Israel has long enjoyed flying over Syria, occasionally bombing targets such as the military facility (claimed to be a nuclear reactor) in the desert last Septemb er or killing specific Hamas targets. It has done so with complete impunity, military and diplomatic. A Russian military presence in Syria would inevitably prompt Israel to alter these tactics, while the additional defense capability afforded by new Russian anti-aircraft and missile hardware would also act as a deterrent. Nuclear-armed Israel has a far superior military to Syria, the latter relying on largely outdated Russian material. This superiority has allowed Israel to behave with a large degree of impunity. The Russian military support may well translate into political support for peace. Russia still has good relations with Israel; certainly, Israel has no reason to consider Russia an enemy. Russia has important ties to Israel, given that so many former Soviet citizens live in Israel and that there are strong links between the Russian and Israeli electronics and software industries. 

Inasmuch as a more extensive Russian military role in Syria, will make it very difficult for the Israeli air force to fly in Syrian airspace as at present, at any time with total impunity, it also acts as a guarantee that Syria will not attempt anything rash against Israel. Moreover, it acts as an additional buffer against possible Iranian designs over Israel. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev called Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, after meeting president Asad to assure him of the nature of the closer Russo-Syrian military ties, as well as to discuss Israel’s role in Georgia. It should be noted that Israel stopped supplying arms to Georgia during the short war, fearing Russia’s diplomatic retaliation. The United States, on the other hand, has apparently not stopped, sending ‘humanitarian’ aid to Georgia using two warships. Russia has also implied that it would sell advanced defensive systems to Iran - a more likely conduit for Hezbollah than Syria. While Russia has made it clear that it is interested in maintaining good relations with Israel, it has an important diplomatic advantage in backing Syrian talks with Israel. As for Syria, Russia is a greater guarantor of impartiality than the United States when it comes to Israel. Any US politician willing to push Israel to accept peace with Syria without securing satisfactory concessions from the latter, would be risking his/her career. 

Apart from Bush, neither McCain nor Obama would stick their necks out too far for Syria. Russia can. It can use the threat of offering Syria (and Iran) offensive as well as defensive weapons. Moreover, the re-en try of Russia in the Middle East made possible by the Georgian crisis comes as the Middle east has already seen important changes in favor of Syria. If the threat of attacking Iran is now pursued more by Israel than the United States, the power balance in Lebanon has re-shifted in favor of Syria as Hezbollah has resumed an important role in the coalition government that was recently sworn in, in Beirut. Having survived accusations of political assassination, interference in Lebanese affairs, diplomatic isolation from Europe and even key Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt (highlighted by the failure of the Arab League summit in Damascus last spring), Asad has suddenly become a very important player in the region. He immediately saw the diplomatic opportunities afforded by the Georgian president’s overconfident ambitions, inviting Russia back to the Middle Eastern chessboard.

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