Syrian signals

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

Despite U.S. machinations, Syria enjoys considerable influence in the region and has an important role to play in Iraqs future.

in DamascusThe fort in

JUST a couple of years ago, following the United States-led occupation of Iraq, senior American officials were predicting that the Syrian governments days were numbered. One of them said that Syria was like a low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking. The George W. Bush administration was talking about effecting a regime change in Damascus.

However, things have changed for the better for Syria. Damascus is no longer on the defensive. Today, it has far more cards to play against the continuing machinations of the U.S. and its principal ally in the region, Israel. Both Washington and Tel Aviv have overplayed their hand since the occupation of Iraq started in 2003.

The Bush administration imposed tough sanctions on Syria and got the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act passed in Congress. However, the quagmire in which the U.S. finds itself in Iraq has limited its military options vis-a-vis Syria. The military defeat inflicted by Hizbollah on the Israeli army in Lebanon has also strengthened the Syrian government indirectly. The game plan of the neoconservatives in the U.S. and the Zionists has been to redraw the map of the region by breaking up countries such as Iraq and Syria. Their main aim is to get access to the regions oil.

Building a pipeline from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to Haifa in Israel is a long-cherished dream of Israel. An independent Kurdistan would make this dream a reality. Syria, like all other countries in the region, is opposed to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during his visit to Turkey in October, said that Damascus fully supported Ankaras moves to take military action against separatist Kurds inside northern Iraq. Syria too has a Kurdish minority. A Kurdish state would mean territorial claims on Syria as well.

Israels talk of war with Syria has also noticeably subsided in recent months. European countries, disregarding Washingtons proclivities, have started to re-engage Syria. They are aware that Syria can play a crucial role in resolving some of the contentious issues plaguing the region. Damascus has considerable influence among the Palestinians and the Lebanese. Syria will have an important role to play in the unfolding events in Iraq. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that it could not be denied that Syria is a main player in the region.

Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji al-Otari, speaking to the international media in Damascus in the last week of October, said that tremendous pressure was being exerted on Syria to change its domestic and foreign policies. We will remain steadfast, said Otari. Syrian dissident groups are being nurtured in Western capitals. Washington and Paris are in the forefront of these activities meant to destabilise one of the few remaining secular governments in the region. There have been concerted attempts to link Bashar al-Assad to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Otari, alluding to the West, said that some people wanted Arab countries to follow a particular model of democracy. He said that the present Syrian model was best suited for his country and that the slogan of democracy was being used to undermine stability in the region.

It is a cunning agenda. They entered Iraq using this slogan, he said. Otari expressed the view that currently the struggle in the region was between the concept of force and the power of logic.

Syria, he said, stood for the latter and would never bow its head before hegemonic powers. The Prime Minister revealed that when a senior American diplomat told him that Syria must change its policy on a certain issue, he immediately terminated the meeting. That particular episode, he said, was an illustration of a hegemonic attitude.

An aerial view

Otari announced that his country would not participate in the new West Asia peace conference being organised at the initiative of the Bush administration. Is it a peace conference? the Prime Minister sarcastically asked. He pointed out that the return of the Golan Heights was not on the agenda of the proposed talks. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that though the Bush administration would like Syria to participate, the talks would only focus on the Palestinians.

Syria has been demanding the return of the Golan Heights since it was captured by Israel in the 1967 war. The liberation of the Golan is a strategic option for Syria, Otari told the media. He also pointed out that Israel did not agree to a time frame to resolve the Palestinian issue. There has to be an honest mediator. The U.S. should at least act as an honest broker.

The Syrian economy, despite the turmoil in the immediate neighbourhood, is doing comparatively well. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Syrias gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6 per cent last year. According to government statistics, the unemployment rate hovers over the 8 per cent mark.

The economy is being opened up but the public sector is not being dismantled. The public sector continues to play the pivotal role in the key energy sector. There will be no privatisation of public property. Economic reforms will not be done through shock therapy, Otari said. Education and health care continue to be free. Petrol and electricity are subsidised.

Two new oil refineries are being set up. In October, Syria signed a major contract with Iran, Venezuela and Malaysia for the construction of an oil refinery near the city of Homs. Venezuela views Syria as a key player in the emerging multipolar world. The Damascus Stock Exchange is to be fully operationalised by 2008. Four special economic zones, 4,000 hectares each, have been established.

Otari prefers to use the term social market economy for the cautious liberalisation measures the government has undertaken in recent years.

The state is no longer in all activities. Now the partnership is between the state and the people, said Otari. The climate of safety and stability the government has ensured has been an important factor attracting foreign investments. In 2006, the volume of investments exceeded $4 billion. Arab countries are among the major investors, and much of the investment is in the agricultural sector.

Syrias huge tourism potential is also being exploited. The country has been described as the cradle of civilisations and religions. In 2006, the government invested $3 billion in the tourism sector. Tourism Minister Saadalla Agha al-Qalaa said that 10,000 tourists from India visited the country in 2006. The country has amazing architectural sights. Damascus, the capital, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Its fabled monuments include the Ommayad mosque, the Church of Saint Paul and the tomb of Saladin the Great.

Well-preserved Roman amphitheatres are found in Bosra and Jableh. A visit to the ancient ruins in the city of Palmyra in the middle of the Syrian desert is a fascinating experience. Those interested in soaking up the Mediterranean sun and sand should visit the Syrian coast.

The Syrian government, under the leadership of the late Hafez al-Assad, instituted reforms that have made the country self-sufficient in foodgrains since the mid-1990s. Now Syria has a surplus and is exporting wheat to many Arab countries. It was a strategic shift that has enormously benefited the country. As Otari emphasised during his interaction with the media, the West has used food as a leverage to influence many Third World countries. Syria is really free to take independent political decisions.

Many key Arab countries such as Egypt are dependent on food aid from the West. An editor with a leading Arab daily told this correspondent that almost all Arab countries today were either militarily or economically dominated by the U.S. Syria is one of the few exceptions.

One of the major challenges the country faces is the refugee problem. Since the occupation of Iraq began, the country has been swamped by refugees. According to Otari, the number of refugees from Iraq today stands between 1.5 and two million, a figure as high as almost 10 per cent of the countrys population. The U.S. has taken in a paltry 1,700 refugees from Iraq so far. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused the U.S. government of doing too little in this regard. Washington is spending about $2 billion per week on the war in Iraq but has barely begun to address the fallout from the war, stated a Human Rights Watchs spokesperson in the beginning of the year.

The international community has not been very helpful or understanding with regard to the problems Syria is facing on this front. Syrias generosity is admirable and must be noted, the representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria said. Otari said that the government had instituted a $2-billion subsidy for the refugees. The refugee influx has resulted in many social problems. For instance, the price of real estate in Damascus has soared as rich Iraqis have been buying up property. But the majority of the refugees are in dire need of financial help.

The Israeli air strike in September against a target in northern Syria still generates a lot of comment. Otari categorically stated that the stories about Israel targeting an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor were part of Zionist propaganda.

He said that the allegations about North Korean help for Syrias nascent civilian nuclear programme were fabricated by Israel. The International Atomic Energy Agency chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, has also dismissed the Israeli claims. Many intelligence analysts believe that the Israeli war planes targeted a Syrian arms depot in Deir ez-Zor. Bashar al-Assad said that the target was a small military building under construction.

The raid was also obviously part of the continuing U.S.-Israel psychological warfare against Syria and Iran. The message to Damascus and Teheran is that Israels air force still carries punch even though its army was humiliated in Lebanon. Washington may also be seeking to signal to the international community that on matters relating to proliferation in West Asia, it would prefer to act in concert with Israel as the nuclear policeperson.

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