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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: 080 - (31/08/10)

Caught Between Two Lebanons
Syria has always been the principal external actor in Lebanese politics and it continues to maintain its influence in Beirut, if not through direct proxies, through key allies such as Hezbollah. Until the 2003 US war on Iraq, Syria could count on a cold relationship with Iraq, though at least it did not have to worry about stability and spillovers of Iraqi problems in Syria, as was the case with Lebanon. Now, as the US has accelerated its withdrawal from Iraq, its combat troops having left the country two weeks early, an Iraq that is still sorting out the results of last March’s democratic elections, has created an important void in the region. As Iraq looks increasingly more like Lebanon than the centrally controlled state it once was, dominated by sectarian policies, Syria will become ever more embroiled in Iraqi affairs. Syria has already felt the effects of the Iraq war in the ‘first person’, as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have chosen to find refuge in Syria.

The influx of Iraqis has been such that the country has had to issue new laws to safeguard its secular nature. While, Syria will continue to feel the effects of the stable ‘instability’ – perhaps that is how best to describe the current situation. In Iraq as more refugees migrate in its territory, it will also spar with its traditional regional ally Iran and concur with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a scenario that could lead to a new regional proxy war, as the various powers vie in favor of different political factions. As US combat forces depart, they will leave increasingly weak borders, making it far easier for the foreign fighters that the Bush administration had always complained about to enter from Syria. Conversely, the political instability in Iraq, which even if a cabinet is announced in the next few months would have difficulty in managing, would also leave Syria vulnerable to increased risks of terrorism.

Many expect Iran to wield the greatest influence; they are certainly putting the most pressure on Iraq's current Shiite parliamentary majority to join forces with the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shiite groups to confront the secular coalition led by the ‘Shiite born’ but secular Ayad Allawi who is the leader of the election winning al-Iraqiya bloc coalition. Damascus had made rather clear that it is backing Allawi, as is Saudi Arabia. Turkey, meanwhile, is concerned about the power vacuum, which could affect the ambitions of Kurdish parties that advocate independence. The realistic risk is that its own Kurdish groups would also intensify independence claims, as would the Kurdish population of Syria. Turkey, then, is also supporting the Allawi camp and any remnant of the nationalists (the Ba’ath). Syria has become so committed to promoting Allawi as prime minister in Iraq that it tried to bring the Allawi’s and Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalitions together last July. Indeed, the Chinese Xinhua agency reported that Allawi and Muqtada al-Sadr would be traveling to Damascus to discuss forming a coalition. The two leaders already met in Damascus at the end of July.

Syria, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, is evidently already interfering in Iraqi affairs, even if, for the time being, this influence is ‘constructive’ trying to help form a new government in Baghdad and, clearly, a government that would ensure more stability. Allawi and al-Sadr’s militias were engaged in heavy fighting in 2004 and 2005 when Allawi was prime minister, and Syrian officials are reported as having negotiated in an especially intense manner to persuade Mr. Allawi to come to Damascus to meet al-Sadr, whose fellow party members had also refused to meet Allawi in the past. Iraq is now so important to Syrian affairs that the government has formed a special Iraq group to offer direct political access at the highest level to Iraqi leaders. Using its years of experience in Lebanon, Damascus has also set up links to all major Iraqi power brokers and played sides off each other. In the Ba’athist heyday, many Iraqi dissidents lived in exile in Damascus, including the current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since the fall of Saddam, Syria has hosted former Ba’athists. Syria’s mingling in Iraq has left it vulnerable to various accusations, especially from al-Maliki, who was very critical of Damascus’s role in harboring members of the former Ba’athist administration.

It is interesting to note that Syria is pushing for a strong government, which avoids as much as possible the sectarianism that it has witnessed in Lebanon. This contrasts with Iran’s designs for Iraq, which are far more inclined toward having a weak Iraq, embroiled in sectarianism. Once the pinpoint of the Syro-Iranian relationship (during the Iran-Iraq war), Iraq is emerging as the cause of an impending rift between the two countries over a strategic regional concern. Iran wants to prop up Shiite forces that would make life very difficult for Sunnis, which would put pressure on the Sunni majority in Syria. While, the US will be happy to leave Iraq, as it tries to focus on resolving Afghanistan, Syria’s network of relationships with Iraqi power circles should increase its bargaining value with Washington. Indeed, Damascus is also putting on a show of diplomatic prowess, showing off its connections to all Iraqi sides and its willingness to consider its own best interest rather than simply following on Iran’s coat tails. Iraq, once the source of greatest contrast between Washington and Damascus, could become one of the avenues through which Syria and the USA will develop closer ties.

Syria’s contrasts with Iran over Iraq coincide with an intensification of its ties with Saudi Arabia over Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. President al-Asad’s visit to Beirut alongside king Abdallah of Saudi Arabia was a clear sign Riyadh approves of Syria’s role in Lebanon; evidently, Saudi assent suggests that Damascus will use its influence to contain Hezbollah. The joint Saudi-Syrian visit to Beirut also puts an effective end to the affair concerning the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, after which Saudi Arabia cut ties to Damascus, holding it responsible for the attack that took his life.

The ambiguity that characterizes Damascus’ emerging strategy of playing both sides should also appease Israeli concerns to some extent. The joint Syro-Saudi visit to Beirut shows Israel that Syria is more than willing to take a very pragmatic approach to secure its own goals (namely the Golan Heights) and that it was willing to weaken ties to regional players such as Hezbollah and Iran when suitable. Observers of the Israeli scene such as professor Alon Ben-Meir, at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU, suggests the Syro-Saudi event gives Israel an opportunity to resume peace talks with Syria. Moreover, Israel, concerned as it must be over the cooling of relations with Turkey since the humanitarian naval convoy “freedom Flotilla’ incident last June, could ask Turkey to mediate such talks in an effort to reduce tensions in the Middle East region. Syria, being Syria, would of course still maintain a close alliance with Iran, which remains an important economic power. In August, it was announced that Iranian gas would be shipped to Syria through an Iraqi pipeline which could lead to exports through the Mediterranean. Syria is not ideological, it is not in hock to any religious sect. It is indeed the most pragmatic power in the Middle East and its main goal is the return of the Golan. Syria probably also see in the new drive by the US administration to push for bilateral direct talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, another opportunity to stake its own claim for ‘regional peace’.

 
 

 

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