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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: 089 - (31/05/11)

What is really Going On?
There are no foreign journalists in Syria, except for a few like Martin Fletcher, who have managed to find a way inside. This makes the information coming out of the country very foggy. The government has made many arrests, but the protests, while violent, have not reached a ‘critical mass,’ yet as was the case in Tunisia or Egypt; president Bashir al-Asad’s regime has managed to resist the pressure, even if he has had to promise to agree to some of the protesters’ demands. What is clear is that while Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively immune, given the scope of unreported but huge pro-government demonstrations, the revolts while intense and violent, remain isolated from the core. Some signs in the main protest areas such as Dara’a or Hama are openly defying Asad, as the president is seen as either too weak or too incapable to enforce the political and economic reforms he has promised, including the more immediate ones of increasing salaries for low-income workers. In Damascus, whilst the atmosphere remains eerily calm as life proceeds normally on the surface, Syria is starting to feel the effects, particularly as far as the economy is concerned.

There is also the question of possible foreign intervention; perhaps the protesters believe that if they persist, they will generate enough sympathy to prompt a western intervention similar to the NATO reaction to the Libyan uprising. However, it is unclear what the protest movement intends to do, and while NATO intervention can be ruled out, there is no alternative government idea that is being proposed. Little is known about the true scope of the protests; the West and many Syrians themselves - some say the vast majority - may be more frightened by the alternatives than the status quo. Nevertheless, Syria will not be the same; there have been reports of mass graves and intense shooting, especially around villages near the border with Lebanon, where many Syrians have been escaping. Should the frequent but vague reports of mass graves be proven, this would raise the official death toll from the revolts that started last March to much more than the current UN estimate of 1,000.

The government propaganda is presenting the protesters as terrorists, at least those they arrest, and mentions finding larges caches of weapons in the very places where the protests are taking place. There seems to be a two-sided propaganda war, and it is likely that the majority of Syrians are not entirely convinced by either the government or the protest movement. Indeed, unlike Libya or Yemen, president Asad still enjoys some form of popularity and respect. At the personal level, people have not blamed Asad for being corrupt, in the same way that Tunisians and Egyptians did in the cases of Ben Ali and Mubarak. The main complaints are targeted toward the people around Asad, the Baath party and the military leadership – which are all dominated by an Alawi minority (at 1.5 million people, it is smaller than the Christian minority of about 2.5 million). Maher Asad, the president’s brother, heads the Republican Guard, which is made up exclusively of Alawis. Some soldiers are believed to have defected from regular army units, but to a lesser extent than has been reported in the mainstream international media, according to some journalists that have managed to report from Syria itself.

The majority also fears, as has been noted by Newnations before, that should the Asad presidency collapse, Syria would become embroiled in the kind of sectarian and inter-confessional violence that has become all too familiar in Iraq and Lebanon. However, Asad is becoming more isolated. He is isolated from the people, who understand his limitations in authority realizing that the intense repression is being orchestrated by Asad’s coterie rather than Asad himself.

The people, therefore, see Asad, if not desperate, as being too weak to carry out the reforms he has promised to launch. Some of the demonstrations mocked Asad’s goals to restore sovereignty over the Golan, the achievement of which would theoretically leave Asad freer from the army to pursue reform. Moreover, the army and intelligence establishment itself and some members of the Asad family may start to see Asad as too unwilling to step up the anti-protest repression, buckling to his own concerns and international pressure. Asad was an able chess player, skillfully playing the diplomatic game when he came under pressure from France and the United States over Lebanon, the Hariri assassination and the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war. In those situations, Asad drew diplomatic advantage from Syria’s strategic position to emerge as one of the key players in the regional balance in the period preceding the ‘Arab Spring’. Now he is weak.

President Obama made a determined call for Israel to retreat to the pre-1967 war boundaries; this would necessarily imply negotiations over the Golan, but Asad now lacks the internal authority to lead Syria in such delicate talks that require the trust of his inner circle and the international community. Indeed, Asad himself is now in a far weaker negotiating position; he cannot compromise, seeing as the internal crisis has given the ‘conservative’ military leadership the upper hand. Nonetheless, the Syrian regime is still not completely finished. Unlike Qadhafi, Asad has a very important regional role to play; Syria has much that the West and its neighbors like Israel or Turkey need. Syria is still a key power broker in Lebanon and the United States needs a stable leadership in Damascus as it proceeds with the dismantling of its operations in Iraq.

The EU and the United States have announced sanctions against key members of the Syrian leadership. President Asad had been left out of the net of restrictions until recently. When President Obama delivered his speech on the Middle East on May 19, outlining his vision for the two states solution, and his determination for this to become the main goal of US foreign policy in the region, he unwittingly offered Asad a ‘hall pass’.

The two-state solution and Middle East peace cannot be achieved without Syria. The internal Syrian revolt now gives the West more power to extract what it wants from Syria in Lebanon. Indeed, the timing of the Syrian crisis itself may have a Lebanese component. The Saudis have been rather quiet on the Syrian revolt, and many suspect that they have been financing them through the mosque networks. The Syrian regime, in fact, has blamed the revolts on Salafists and Sunni fundamentalists; as much as this may be propaganda, fundamentalists have doubtless joined the revolt that was originally sparked, it should be noted, in Daraa as a protest against the local governor. The spark may then have been exploited by exiled Syrian billionaires, including Basher al-Asad’s cousin Ribal al-Asad, son of exiled uncle Rifaat, or even the former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam and some Saudis like the former ambassador to Washington, Bandar bin-Sultan (as suggested by Syrian blogger Camille Otrakji) to expand and cause more significant damage to the regime. The Saudis themselves could be suspected of fomenting the revolts as a way to divert Syrian attention on helping Lebanese prime minister designate Najib Miqati, to form his government and thus reduce the growing influence of Hezbollah. Indeed, it has been suggested that former prime minister Saad Hariri himself (after making a turnaround that left Hezbollah vulnerable in the UN mandated trial for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005), may also be contributing to the Syrian revolts. Syria would be wise to move quickly on reducing press restrictions and allowing foreign journalists to enter such that a more accurate picture of the turmoil may emerge.      
 

 

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