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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: 084 - (24/12/10)

In 2010 Syria continued to pursue as good relations as possible with Washington despite US (and Israeli) concerns about the alleged transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah from Iran through Syria. However, the enthusiastic diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Damascus that characterized the first year of the Obama administration faded and Syria has been trying to secure other strategic alliances, carving an important role for itself in the region by establishing closer ties to Turkey and even Saudi Arabia, with which it had cold relations until 2008. The United States have not played the Syria card very effectively; Washington needs Syria as a mediator between itself and Teheran – over the Iranian nuclear ambitions - and with Hamas, which would inevitably play an important role in the various recurring Palestinian peace process. In 2010, it also became clear that, much as Syria welcomes ties with the West, it is the West itself that needs Syria as a regional partner. The risk is that Syria will pursue a more targeted foreign policy vis-à-vis the European Union, choosing individual states rather than deal with it as a whole. In this case, president Asad has forged closer ties to France, even if it abandoned plans to establish a trade partnership with the EU. Nonetheless, Syria has started to shape a more independent foreign policy, one that is characterized by a willingness to shift and modify the nature of longstanding alliances to achieve its main goal of securing the Golan through a negotiated settlement, while also carving a protagonist role within a new alliance linking it to Central Asia.

Neither the United States nor Europe, moreover, has made any effort to help Syria achieve its goal of discussing the Golan Heights. This has been a shortsighted policy, which has alienated Syria from discussions around the latest – inevitably failed - Palestinian Israeli peace talks. Syria has continued to maintain close relations with Iran, even as it has been strengthening those with Turkey; the latter is an especially noteworthy development in light of their geographic proximity, energy resources and infrastructure. Syria can serve as a Mediterranean terminus for gas and oil pipelines originating in Russia, as well transportation infrastructure. In this respect, Syria has been building ties with Ukraine as well, restoring the early Islamic links built during the Umayyad dynasty. Syria has also been establishing closer relations to France and in December, president Asad visited Kiev and Paris. President Sarkozy was the first western leader that launched Syria’s rehabilitation with the West in 2008, when he met president Asad. Ukraine is important to Syria because of its strategic position favoring the construction of an oil and gas pipeline through Central Asia. Syria is pursuing what it calls a ‘Five Seas Policy’, which aims to build trade and closer relations with countries located along the Mediterranean, The Black Sea, The Red Sea, the Caspian and the Persian Gulf. Syria fears being isolated again, and it is looking to build a new network of alliances that will make it more independent from the United States or Western Europe.

Syria wants to play a central role such that any action directed against it, by way of sanctions or restrictions, would generate a ripple effect putting pressure on other countries, which enjoy close ties to the West such as Turkey through NATO. Syria’s new policy also involves reaching out to South America and Brazil – where there is a large Syrian community - in particular. This policy is the result of the efforts to isolate Syria after the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri in Lebanon in 2005. The West continues to deal with Syria through excessive ‘pre-conditions’ and demands. Syria has understood that the US administration does not have the stomach to pursue the kind of relations with Syria that are necessary to achieve significant changes in the Middle East; the latest round of US brokered peace talks have inevitably failed; the lesson for Syria is that the United States has very little power to help it achieve its goals.

US-Syrian relations focus around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; the Golan is not given nearly as much attention. If Washington has done so little to extract real concessions from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is nothing to suggest it would pursue any discussion over the Golan. Indeed, the Israeli parliament passed a law last November that would require any peace agreement with Syria to be ratified by popular referendum. While, Israel accused Syria of allowing Scud missiles to move through its border with Lebanon to Hezbollah – though nobody has actually seen said rockets – in 2010 the much touted alliances between Syria and Hezbollah, indeed Syria and Iran, have started to show some weaknesses. Lebanon and Syria have grown closer over the course of the past summer, and Syria has gained unlikely supporters by way of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Hezbollah is less important to Syria than it was five years ago. Syria and Saudi Arabia have worked together to ensure that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s likely indictment of Hezbollah officials as part of the Hariri murder investigation, does not lead to the outbreak of what could have the makings of another civil war, Asad has shown that it is interested in achieving tangible goals rather than win ideological battles.

Syria has not been pushing to clear Hezbollah of the indictments that are expected to be issued in January. Damascus’s main interest in Hezbollah is in using the latter as leverage in bringing Israel closer to an agreement over the Golan and has used the investigation to distance itself from Hezbollah. Alternatively, in 2010, Syria has established closer ties to important Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, making it less reliant on Iran. It is less a case of Damascus abandoning Tehran altogether as demanded by the United States and Israel in return for a resumption of bilateral peace talks, than it is a way to earn political capital with important regional powers. Saudi Arabia itself may be interested in softening tensions with Iran through Syria, in the same way that Riyadh helped pave the road to better relations between Damascus and Beirut. Iran, for its part, has started to pursue a more direct approach to Lebanon.

President Ahmadinejad visited southern Lebanon without intermediaries, signaling a new Iranian approach that no longer requires Syria as the ‘middleman’. Shortly after, President Asad ‘reciprocated’ by visiting Riyadh for talks with King Abdallah. As for the greater independence between Damascus and Tehran, a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks said that Syria advised Iran not to count on its support were its nuclear facilities to be attacked by Israel. The leaked cable, dated December 2009, added that the Syrian position was announced directly to an Iranian delegation that visited Damascus. On that same occasion, according to the cable, Syria also informed Iran that it would not take part in any war between Israel and Hezbollah either. An internal Syrian source quoted by the al-Ahram newspaper indicated that Syria is increasingly concerned by Hamas. Damascus fears the rise of an “Islamic emirate” in Gaza; it holds, that this would strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in Syria.    
 

 

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