THE turmoil in Lebanon has subsided for the time being but neighbouring Syria is not letting its guard down. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned his countrymen to be ready to face an Israeli attack, which could occur at "any moment". In an interview to a Qatari newspaper in the second week of October, he said Syria was prepared for any eventuality since Israel had "abandoned" the peace process in West Asia.
The Syrian President's views were published soon after his calls for a resumption of the peace process evoked a negative response from Israel. In interviews to the German magazine Der Spiegel and the BBC in late September and early October, Assad stated that he wanted to make peace with Israel. After the disastrous war that Israel conducted against Hizbollah in Lebanon, some Israeli Ministers had suggested that it was time for their government to open talks with Syria, which Tel Aviv views as Hizbollah's political and military backer. Indeed, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said in the third week of September that Syria "is the key to stability in the region". He went on to add that "every war creates opportunities for a broadened political process" and that Israel "should prepare the conditions for a dialogue with Syria."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, was quick to shoot down the idea. Israeli commentators said that the main reason for this was the Bush administration's hard-line stance on Syria. They said that the military fiasco in Lebanon had left Olmert fighting for his political life and that he now lacked the stature to negotiate a deal.
Uri Sagi, an Israeli reserve Army General and a former head of military intelligence, said that the Olmert government was "paralysed."
Washington is helping Olmert by continuing to brand Damascus a supporter of terrorism and calling for draconian sanctions. Damascus continues to back Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Both are political parties that have contested elections and become part of the government. Though the United States has branded them terrorist organisations, they have legitimacy in the region and beyond. Hassan Nasrullah, the Hizbollah's leader, is arguably the most popular personality in West Asia. All over Syria, this correspondent saw posters and banners proclaiming the Hizbollah leader as a hero of the Arabs. There were long celebrations to honour the "strategic victory" of Hizbollah over Israel. Another charge against Damascus is that it was involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. A United Nations mandated inquiry into the assassination is currently at an advanced stage. Damascus has rejected the accusations. Syrian officials say that the assassination was an act of terrorists, similar to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus in September.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for increased sanctions against Syria for "being a state sponsor of terrorism", at the U.N. General Assembly session in the last week of September. Previous U.S. administrations, however, have found Syria to be indispensable to peace in the region and conducted diplomacy accordingly. James Baker, who was Secretary of State during the presidency of George Bush Senior, said recently that Washington should once again start talking directly to Damascus. Baker made many trips to Syria while in office. Syria was part of the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War. The country also extended considerable help in intelligence-gathering following the events of 9/11, a fact acknowledged by Washington. Relations went downhill after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Syria had steadfastly opposed the invasion of a sovereign country, arguing that such a course would cause immeasurable damage to the region. Today there are more than 100,000 Iraqis living as refugees in Syria.
"The United States does not believe that Syria is seeking peace," Olmert told the Israeli media. In the last week of September, Olmert went to the extent of stating that as long as he was Prime Minister Israel would not give up the Golan Heights. Assad told a Qatari paper that 80 per cent of the issues between the two countries had been resolved. The major issue that remains unresolved is the Golan Heights, which were captured by the Israelis in the 1973 war. Fifty thousand people from the Golan Heights have become refugees.
President Assad has described the calls by Israeli politicians for a resumption of dialogue with Syria as a "virtual peace movement emanating from internal considerations" in Israel. Many in Israel think that if there is a peace deal with Syria, it will at least ease its support for Hizbollah and also detach itself from Iran. In his interview to Der Spiegel, Assad said he did not want Israel wiped off the map but instead wanted peace. At the same time, he emphasised that a new framework for talks was needed. He added that the U.S. could no longer play the role of a mediator as it was allied too closely with Israel. He further indicated that he would prefer the Europeans to play an important role, as they were more conversant with the political intricacies of the region. He also reiterated that handing back the Golan Heights to Syria was not enough; justice, in the shape of a viable sovereign state, had to be delivered to the long-suffering Palestinians.
Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Otri, speaking to the media in Damascus in the first week of October, emphasised that any peace should be "a peace with honour, which would include the liberation of occupied territories." He said that the "intransigence" of Israel had created a "state of permanent tension" in the region. "It forces us to strengthen our defences all the time," he said. In response to a question about Syria being branded a state sponsor of terrorism by the Bush administration, Otri said that his country had stated repeatedly that it was "against terrorism in all its forms." He said that despite the repeated American calls for stringent sanctions against Syria, his government was still calling for dialogue with Washington. "It is a conflict between the logic of power and the power of logic. We prefer the power of logic. The American administration is following the logic of power," said the Syrian Prime Minister. He went on to say that Washington expected all countries to submit to its threats. "We will not submit to the Americans at all. They will not make Syria give in even if other countries [in the region] have caved in. Syria is not the only country saying no to America. The majority in the world is saying no to America. This is the 21st century. Cowboy politics will not work," he said. Otri emphasised that "sanctions" would have no impact on Syria as the country exported wheat, fruits and vegetables in large quantities and was more than self-sufficient in oil and gas.
Otri predicted that in the end there would be a "demographic solution" to the conflict with Israel: "Israel is floating in a sea of Arabs. New generations of Arabs are more steadfast as far as their rights are concerned. Another intifada generation is growing up in the occupied territories." Therefore, he indicated, the only solution was for Israel to return the land it had annexed: "Israel should submit to all the international resolutions. It should be `land for peace' and not `security for peace' as Israel wants. This struggle will go on from one generation to another if the question is not resolved."
Syria, at one time covered what today are the territories of Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. Syria is the repository of 13 major civilisations. Recently, archaeologists discovered the remnants of a civilisation dating back to 9000 B.C.
Today, Syria is among the few standard-bearers of secular politics in the region. The state has cracked down on fundamentalism, the most sensational instance being the crushing of the uprising in Hama, in the late 1980s. Unlike in many other Arab states, in Syria religious minorities such as Christians have been allowed to flourish.
Despite the chaos in the neighbourhood, the Syrian economy is doing well. The young President has relaxed state controls over the economy and allowed the private sector a greater role. Otri said that he expected the growth rate to be between 7 and 8 per cent by 2010. Currently it is at around 5.5 per cent. Private banks and insurance companies have already set up shop in Syria. A stock exchange is to be inaugurated soon in Damascus. Otri said that in 2005, more than $7 billion was invested in the Syrian economy. He stated that his role model was Mahathir bin Mohammed, the former Malaysian Prime Minister who liberalised Malaysia's economy without succumbing to the pressures exerted by the West on international issues. Iran and Venezuela are helping Syria to construct an oil refinery.
There has been considerable investment by the Gulf states in the tourism sector. Given its historical heritage and an array of dazzling destinations, the country could give even Egypt a run for its money.