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SYRIA

 
  
  

 

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: 082 - (25/10/10)

In Newnations’ October update for Syria, we suggested that Syria might have started to soften its ties to Iran and Shiite forces in Lebanon in exchange for better relations with Saudi Arabia. The motivation for this shift, we said, was due to a pragmatic realization in Damascus that this approach might be more conducive to a return of the Golan that the previous strategy of courting Iran and its regional Arab allies. While recognizing that Syro-Saudi relations were improving in 2009, as the Kingdom tried to weaken the Damascus-Tehran (and Hezbollah) alliance, much of the Western media and even big names in the political risk business have proposed that the new Saudi-Syrian entente has already started to weaken, increasing the risks of chaos in Lebanon. Syria has been cleared, by the Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri and the UN special prosecutor, for the murder of prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The mainstream analysis blames the renewed frailty of Syro-Saudi relations over an alleged Saudi disappointment that Syria has backed the Shiite Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – considered too pro-Iran by Riyadh - rather than secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who earned a slight edge over al-Maliki in the March 2010 parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, Damascus has not so much shifted support as realized, as has Saudi Arabia, that it will be very difficult to secure an Allawi government seven months after the elections. Both Saudi Arabia and Syria would prefer to see a stable Iraq, which means they will support anyone able to build a solid government. Many Western analysts also suggested that Syria is disappointed over the Saudis’ reluctance to fully reject the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (TSL), which will likely charge some Hezbollah members for the murder of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The resumption of tensions between Riyadh and Damascus, then, would fuel turmoil in Lebanon itself. While the risk of turmoil in Lebanon is always high, given the confessional nature of its political system, there is little to suggest that Syria and Saudi Arabia are once again at odds over regional issues. Moreover, it may be possible to suggest Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon as a message to Damascus that Iran no longer needs intermediaries to deal with Hezbollah, which would further enable Damascus to extricate itself from the Shiite group, even while maintaining a special relationship with Iran and continuing to pursue closer ties to Saudi Arabia. Much of western analysis of Syria and Lebanon focuses on the alliance between the former and Hezbollah, but it fails to consider the fact that Syria is only bound to Hezbollah for convenience and only for as long as it sees this alliance as being useful in achieving its goal of securing the Golan.

It is also in Syria’s interests to ensure stability in Lebanon. It is not necessary to be pro-Hezbollah to realize that if the STL indicts Hezbollah members, as expected, by the end of the year, this could prompt Hezbollah and allied parties to withdraw from the government coalition, triggering a political crisis and a military takeover of Beirut as happened in 2008. In 2008, Syria was still isolated from world diplomacy and the neo-Cons were still in control of the White House. Syria no longer has anything to gain from an exasperated Hezbollah. Indeed, there is the concern that a radicalization of Hezbollah would prompt a reawakening of the Sunni extremism witnessed in 2008 in Tripoli. The Sunni radical Abdullah Azzam Brigades based in Tripoli have made several anti-Hezbollah declarations, attacking Shiites in general, in view of the visit of Iran’s president Ahmadinejad to the country in October. Syria, understands that it must work together with Saudi Arabia to try to contain the potential for chaos building in Lebanon. Far from resuming antagonisms with Syria, Saudi Arabia is said to have asked members of the Hariri government to keep criticisms of president Ahmadinejad to a minimum during his visit. King Abdallah spoke to president Ahmadinejad before the visit and members of the Hariri government, even hardliner anti-Shiites such as Maronites Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea greeted Ahmadinejad at the Beirut airport.

There is a sense that Saudi Arabia itself may be interested in softening tensions with Iran through Syria, in reciprocation for what the Saudis have helped Damascus achieve with the Lebanese government. As for Iran, the Ahmadinejad visit to southern Lebanon was tantamount to a message that Hezbollah and Tehran no longer require Syria as a ‘middleman’, ushering in a new type of relationship between Damascus and Tehran. Certainly, the alliance will remain at the formal level, and any re-consideration would only occur if and when Syria regains the Golan, but Syria is ever more being drawn into the Western sphere of influence. Days after Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon, president Asad visited Riyadh for talks with King Abdallah. The White House itself has continued to court Syria, also in light of its efforts to push along the frail ‘Israeli-Palestinian peace process’, promising that the Netanyahu government would make ‘painful’ concessions over the Golan. In late September, the White House sent special envoy George Mitchell to Damascus to reiterate the message that the United States would exercise strong pressure on Israel over the Golan, should Syria decide to relinquish its alliance with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah (by cutting off the arms supply, gradually turning it into more of a party than a militia). Iran itself may have already started to take countermeasures, and some of Ahmadinejad’s feats during the Lebanese tour were likely intended to show the West that, even without Syria, Hezbollah would remain a menace.

The United States, in addition, has other tools at its disposal for putting pressure on Syria. The US administration was successful in causing Russia to cancel the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran; it could also persuade Russia to cancel the sale of anti-ship missiles to Syria. Syria has responded positively to some of the US pressure. The Hamas opposition to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was weaker than expected; the Syrian administration likely put pressure on Khaled Mesh’al, the Hamas political office boss who resides in Damascus to avoid making as strong denunciations of the peace talks; indeed, Mesh’al avoided press conferences and statements. Syria will now have to confront very important decisions about its diplomatic future. Should it fully respond to American pressure and completely shun Tehran in favor of Washington and Riyadh or continue to play off both sides against each other. In 1991, Syria backed the Western coalition against the Syrians and it failed to regain the Golan or secure any other concession. It has no better assurances that this would happen now, but there are growing indications of a change in Damascus’s regional strategy, one that could it further away from Iran’s orbit. Nonetheless, Syria cannot afford to make a total break with either Iran or Hezbollah. This means it has to keep all diplomatic channels alive, assuring the Saudis and the West that it will help diffuse the tensions and mediating in resolving the political situation in Iraq.   
 

 

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