The capital of Syria Damascus has been the capital city of Arab culture since January, and it will be until the the end of 2008. Although Syria was the only state left out of the Middle East tour of the U.S. President George Bush Jr. in January, it cannot be said that we have not heard of it throughout last months. It was also in relation to the attack of Israeli air forces on the Syrian territory in September, in relation to the events in the neighbouring Lebanon, as well as to the organization of the recent Palestinian National Conference, which took place at the end of January directly in Damascus. Since the re-election of the President Bashar al-Assad in May 2007, Syria has been repeatedly fortifying its influence in the region, which has been conditioned both by economic and political interests of the country.
2007 was a rather positive year for Syria: although the U.S. sanctions were prolonged, the economy grew (6,2 % in comparison with 5,1 % in 2006), and it managed to attract investments. Inflation decreased to 11 % and unemployment (according to the Syrian Minister for Economy) to 9 %. Yet despite that, several problems with an indispensable impact on economy and political life of the country occured over the last year.
One of the problems are decreasing national oil supplies. After the domestic oil production dropped to approximately to 370,000 barrels a day, Syria became its pure importer over the last year. International Energy Agency (IEA) presumes that despite the renewal and development of the existing supplies by new foreign investors – China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and India’s ONGC Videsh – the production will even decrease to 300,000 barrels a day until 2012, since in comparison with other neighbours the already small Syrian supplies are constantly decreasing and a great part of the infrastructure has been damaged since the Arab-Israeli wars. Older oil fields are already in a mature stage of their life cycle (discovery – development – production – abandonment). On the other hand, domestic consumption has been constantly growing, which leads to a decrease of the exported volumes. If Syria maintains this trend, it will presumably become a pure importer of oil in the next decade. It is trying to prevent this for instance by transformation from thermal-electric power plants burning oil to power plants using natural gas, and by searching for new fields.
Despite the production decrease, in the second half of the year Syria, Iran and Venezuela declared an intention to build an oil refinery in Syria.
Further pressure on the economy is caused by more than 400,000 Palestinian and almost 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, which represents the highest number in all the countries in the region and approximately 8 % of Syria’s population. Around 20,000 ralready eturned to Iraq in December, yet the majority still stays in Syria and thus represents a considerable burden to the national economy.
Besides that, Syria (just as most of the countries in the region) has not been avoided by drought. This had a negative impact on the wheat crop, one of the most important agricultural Syrian export articles, or cotton – the basic raw material of Syrian textile industry. The problems with drought have been continuing also throughout 2008. Therefore at the beginning of January Damascus asked Turkey to release a greater amount of water from the dams on Euphrates so that Syria can make some supplies of water for spring watering. The country is predominantly dry even in optimal conditions, especially in the inlands. Average amount of rainfall is 318 mm a year. While the amount is 1,400 mm in the mountains and 800 mm on the coast, the Northwest of the country gets only 150 mm a year. The UN Habitat considers 1,000 m3 and more a minimum limit of water amount per inhabitant. Up to the limit of 1,700 m3 per inhabitant, one generally speaks about ‘water stress’. Yet in Syria, only 947 m3 of water per inhabitant fall in a year. The country is not self-sufficient in water supplies, it relies on neighbouring states. Up to 50 % of the water supplies come from Turkey and 20 % from Lebanon.
Thus further development of Syrian economy depends strongly on development of the relations between Damascus and its neighbouring states and on the will of the Bashar al-Assad government to continue in the undertaken reforms directing towards greater openess of the economy. Assad takes inspiration from the Chinese model, therefore the economic reforms in Syria preceed the political ones. In 2001 he allowed foreign bank activities in the country, and in July 2005 the governing Baath Party declared in their congress substitution of socialist planned economy by social market economy. The process of economic liberalization was a long-term one and ran in three gradual phases. It was provoked by a wave of strikes from the end of the 1960s against ‘socialist’ measures of the radical wing of the Baath Party. As a response to the requests of businessmen and private sector, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current President, implemented a policy of private capital support by its repatriation, and a policy directed at attracting regional investors. However, the private sector was unable to start up the domestic economy, which together with the effort to solve fiscal and social problems led to Syria′s increasing debt.
In the 1980s, the Baathist ISI (import substitution industrialization) strategy, i.e. domestic industrialization as a substitute for import turned out to be unsustainable. As a response to increasing debts of the country and growing social disquiet, the government took a series of economic measures including lowering of social expenses and conservative regressive fiscal policy, when the poor paid higher taxes than the rich, which was supposed to stimulate investments.
After the fall of the Soviet Union (the key trading partner of Syria), the stuation in the country became even worse. Influenced by the growing influence of the USA in the region, Damascus became aware of the need to transform the economy to the Western model. Therefore in 1990 the Investment Law No. 10 was passed, aimed at supporting the private sector. At the same time the role of the state in providing basic service was reduced. However, the measures taken by Damascus were too cautious and instability of the political situation and of Syria′s alliances with other states did not allow further deepening of reforms, especially in the fiscal sphere. Thus liberalization did not lead to economical growth; on the contrary, it led to increase of poverty and unemployment.
After the death of Hafez Assad, his son Bashar started economical reforms by reforming the Baath Party and by de-Baathification of the economy. The word ‘socialist’ was dissolved from the Party constitution and policy. In the social sphere, Syria prefers a concept of partnership (tasharikiya) of private and public sectors under a common term ‘national sector’. In the five-year plan for 2006 – 2010, two concepts were emphasized: free trade and social well-being of the citizens. However, these are going to be difficult to achieve because of low competitiveness of the Syrian economy. In order not to stick to empty phrases, a sustainable development of the Syrian economy will require structural changes in the management of national economy and establishment of a truly free trade without interference from the state.
In his first innings, the President Bashar al-Assad partly reformed economy, although he kept control over the politics. The president is traditionally a dominant factor in Syrian foreign policy. Together with the Baath Party leaders, he represents the country and determins the orientation of its foreign policy – often based on his own inclination or aversion.
Political power in Syria is based on three cornerstones: on socialist Baathist ideology, strong nationalism and on bindings between the members of Muslim Alawite community singled out from the Shiite doctrine. (However, they include into their doctrine also elements of ancient East astral cults and of Christian religion. The difference between them and the Shiites is also the fact that they did not accept the limits in the sphere of food and social life, which are required in traditional Islam. Their religion is more mystical.) Despite the fact that Alawites represent only 15 % of the population, they have the political, economic and military power and they considerably influence relations with neighbouring countries, although the governing Baath Party is formally a secular leftist nationalist party. With the exception of Hussein’s Iraq, since the 1970s Syria has orientated primarilly on countries with Shiite population majority, although it does not emphasize this aspect and officially it propagates rather unity of the whole Muslim religious community. This religious motif has been appearing in the rhetorics of Damascus since Israel came to being. It grew stronger after the end of the Cold War and more intense since the U.S. invasion to Iraq.
Since Syria opposed the U.S. invasion to Iraq in 2003, it has been accused of developing weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorism, providing asylum for the representatives of the former Iraqi regime and of threatening global security. It was at the time when Damascus together with Iraq, Iran and North Korea appeared on the ‘Evil Axis’ and got into the international isolation based on accusations from the USA that it tried to destabilize Iraq and Lebanon. The USA have imposed sanctions on Syria since May 2004. However, Syria refuses any accusations of terrorism and on the contrary, it deplores terrorism itself. Recently it was confirmed by the Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal on 13th January 2008 in the discussion named Dialogue of Civilizations and Religions. According to it, Syria strongly deplores terrorism in any form, among other also the state terrorism of Israel in occupied Arab territories (1).
Syria considers Israel their main opponent in the region and their relations with the Jewish state markedly influence also their policy towards neighbouring states. Both countries have been formally in a war state since the Six-Day War in 1967, when after the defeat of Syria, Egypt and Jordan Israel occupied strategical territory of the Golan Heights, from where the Syrian troops were bombing northern Israel since 1948 when Syria joined the Arab states unrecognizing the establishment of the Jewish state. In 1981 Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights, but this has been recognized neither by any country, nor by the UN.
There have been several initiatives on both sides aimed at terminating the war state – in the International Peace Conference in Madrid, 1991; in Washington, 1994, and finally in 1999 – 2000. However, so far they have always ended up in failure. The main obstacle in achieving the agreement is the condition of Syria on withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights. The last peace negotiations were interrupted seven years ago after Damascus refused the offer of Israel that they would withdraw from a greater part of the Golans but not from all the occupied territory. The Golans are a strategical territory, especially the Mount Hermon, from which can be gained a very good overview of the situation in the whole of the surrounding lowland area. This plain is also an important water source in the region. A bone of contention is especially the area at the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee – it represents a third of the water resources of Israel, thus it is a strategical territory for both states. The chain of armed conflicts between them was interrupted only by the agreement on disangement of the armed forces and creating a 70km security zone separating the two states. Its abidance is being watched by the observation mission of the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force (UNDOF).
Throughout the last two years, Syria has showed several times that it is interested in peace negotiations. However, the President Assad always conditioned the peace with Israel by a complete withdrawal from the Golans, and it never came to the actual negotiations. In 2001 Assad termed the Israelis “more racist than the Nazis”, which was strongly criticized by the West. In the inauguration speech in May, Assad stated that the objective of the country was “to free the Golan Heights”, and that Syria would attempt to achieve peace with Israel (2). He added that “the Israelis have to remember that the price of peace is lower than of all wars” (3).
In the first half of 2007, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited Assad for a meeting through media, “whenever he feels like” (4). Yet he did not specify whether Israel was willing to return all of the Golan Heights. Sure is, that still in November 2006 Olmert declared that as long as he was the Prime Minister, the Golan Heights would remain in the hands of Israel as an inseparable part of the state (5). On 29th November his spokeswoman Miri Eisin stated that a change in Israeli-Syrian mutual relations would presumably not be possible under the current Syrian regime (6).
In relation to the summit in American Annapolis in November, where Syria participated only after negotiations on Golan Heights were listed in the program, Israel asked Turkey and Germany to mediate a renewal of the contacts with Syria. Also its presence in Annapolis was interpreted by Olmert as a positive and encouraging signal (7). However, he also declared that just as several times in the past, he was ready to negotiate with Syria only under the condition that Syrian regime would dissociate itself from Iran – their most importand ally in the region – and that it would stop supporting the armed groups in Palestine and Lebanon whose aim was to destroy Israel (8). Paralelly with the alteration of the boarders, Israel requires solving other problematic issues:
– Access to water resources, where Israel requires its water supplies from the Golans not to be cut off;
– Security in the manner of the agreement from 1995;
– Normalization of relations, i.e. renewal of diplomatic contacts and opening of the boarders.
However, it was Israel that violated the security guarantees on 6th September 2007, when it led an air raid on Syria. Allegedly it was supposed to be an attack on a nuclear installation under construction. According to the Times, Syria with the help of North Korea were supposed to construct a nuclear power plant near Dair El Zor in the northern part of the country and to set it off in the nearest future (9). However, according to other sources this plant was much further than the Iraqi reactor in Osiraq, which was attacked in prevention by the Israeli in 1981 (10).
Washington Post quoted “an anonymous expert on the Middle East”, who claimed that the raid took place three days after Syria unloaded a cargo from North Korea declared as cement. According to him, the target of the attack was the Agricultural Research Institute near Turkish boarders, which was supposed to be observed for some time by the Israeli secret service with a suspicion that it was extracting urane from agricultural phosphates (11). The Sunday Times brought another news on 23rd September 2007, that Israeli special forces confiscated radioactive material from North Korea in the complex, and subsequently bombed it.
Another one from the speculation series was a version that it was an attack on “the main storage of weapons in the country conveyed by Syria to the Lebanese Hezbollah from Iran”. It was claimed by Intelligence Online: „Dair El Zor houses a huge underground base where the Syrian army stores the long and medium-range missiles it mostly buys from Iran and North Korea. The attack by the Israeli air force coincided with the arrival of a stock of parts for Syria’s 200 Scud B and 60 Scud C weapons” (12).
Syria sharply deplored the attack and denied both speculations. The Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal stated on the Cham press-website (13), which is close to the Syrian regime, that “This story is totally false. It’s the fruit of ill will and does not merit a response.” The President Assad declared that the Israelis attacked “an unused military object” (14). North Korea also denied any cooperation with Syria in the sphere of nuclear activities. At first, Israel was denying the attack (15). They confirmed it only on 2nd October, almost a month after the attack (16). At present they keep silent about it. Yet Ehud Olmert emphasizes that he has no enemy intentions towards Damascus and that he wants to renew the peace negotiations that have been suspended for seven years (17).
A relevant question arises, what kind of attack was it and on what? Why did not Syria respond to it by military means? Why did it not request the UN to draw sanctions on Israel? Why do both countries keep silent? And why do keep silent their allies – the USA on the one side, and Iran and other opponents of Israel on the other? And why such an elaborate deception?
If an unused military base was a target of the attack, then hasty disposal of the remains from the Israeli air raid after the notice of the international inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seems to be at least incomprehensible (18). It should be Syria’s concern to show the world the damages caused by the Israelis. On the other hand, it was proven that the statements on nuclear program of the North Korea were a rather blown up disinformation of the governmental representatives striving for blackmailing the international community, than leaning on real potential that the DPRK could use or sell – for instance to Syria.
Some representatives of the Bush Administration have stated anonymously that the Israeli attack could be meant as a message to Iran, as a clear demonstration that Israel can and will act if Teheran does not give up their plans for their own nuclear program. From the strategical point of view, to pacify Syria can be a smaller problem that to pacify Iran. With the Syrian regime we also cannot directly exclude the possibility that it would not exchange the confrontational fights for neutrality or cooperation, if a strategically advantageous cooperation with the USA arised.
According to the Israeli representatives, it was a message to Syria to stop supporting Palestinian militant Hamas movement, which shortly before that kidnapped an Israeli troop, and not to interfere in the interior matters of Lebanon. At the same time it gave a clear message that in both cases (in relation to Iran as well as to Syria), Washington stands behind Tel Aviv.
Although the U.S Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice terms Syria a “destabilizing factor”, during her trip to the Middle East in fall she told the journalists that her government would not stand in the way of the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. “We are not in their way. If Israel and Syria believe that they can reach an agreement, then thay shall reach it… So far we have not perceived anything in their behaviour which would indicate that syria does anything else but destabilization of the Middle East, but you know that the United States will never be in the way of the states in their peace efforts.”(19)
In any case, the Syrian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Faysal Mekdad in the conference in Annapolis said that “establishment of normal relations with Israel has to be a fruit of general peace and cannot precede it” (ČTK, 28. 11. 2007). Syria refuses Israel conditioning in any way the realization of the peace negotiations. They consider their requirements legitimate, after all, the the withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Uplands was so declared also by the 242 UN SC resolution. Territorial sovereignty is an unquestionable right for Syria. According to the Vice-President Farouk al-Shara, Israel goes too far when it requires Damascus not to infere into the matters in Lebanon or Palestine and to stop the cooperation with Iran.
For Syria, Lebanon represents an important geostrategical territory, and some Syrian historians and politicians have up to the present considered it a part of their country, the so-called Great Syria, which was separated by the French during the mandate administration. Since Syria is not interested in leading military raids against the Jewish state from their territory, Lebanon for them represents a bumper zone – a mediator between them and Israel. Thus for the attacks they use especially the Beqaa Valley and southern Lebanon – the territory which is in fact under the control of Hezbollah, the key ally of Syria, and near which are also the questionable Golan Heights. Thus the aim of the Syrian foreign policy in Lebanon has been weakening Israel, although besides that Syria has had a considerable economic profit from administrating Lebanon; they try to maintain the influence also at present. More than one million of Syrian state citizens work in Lebanon, which considerably helps to reduce the impacts of high unemployment in Syria and their income flowing back to the country represent a significant source of finance. Besides that, Syria is the largest exporting (25,3 %) and the second largest importing (10,7 %) partner of Lebanon, even despite the high duty which gives advantage to a not very competitive Syrian economy to the exclusion of the Lebanese one.
Syria had dominant influence in Lebanon for almost thirty years. From 1976 to 2005 it had their armed forces in Lebanon and it controlled the country in a military way as well as politically and economically through foisted politicians. In 1976 Syrian units entered Lebanon with the aim to supress civil war between the Christian militia with relations to Israel and Muslims supported by Syria. The war was ended in 1989 by the Taif Agreement which legitimized residence of Syrian troops in Lebanon as a warrant of peace development of the country. However, a part of Lebanese politicians declared that the Agreement was enforced.
In 2004, Resolution 1559 was passed by the UN Security Council, bidding all the foreign armies to withdraw their units from Lebanon until the parliamentary election supposed to take place in May next year. The resolution was a clear hint on Syrian units, whose number in Lebanon at that time exceeded 14,000 troops. On the bases of the resolution the leading Lebanese politicians – the leader of the Lebanese Druze Walid Jumblatt and Sunnis Rafik Hariri – requested withdrawal of the Syrian armed forces. Syria started the displacement, however, the favoured former Prime Minister Hariri did not live to see the parliamentary elections – he was murdered in February 2005. According to the report of the UN investigation team Detlev Mehlis, high Syrian public actors and Secret Service were involved in the murder. Syria refused the accusations with the statement that “point one’s finger at Syria in relation to a terrorist act aimed at destabilization of Syria as well as Lebanon is the same as to accuse the USA of the September 11 attacks,” stated the Syrian Minister Buthaina Shaban (20). Yet Syria eventually withdrew their troops from Lebanon under the pressure of the international community, Lebanese opposition and mass demonstrations.
Despite that the assassination of Hariri threw Syria into international isolation. After the assassination, relations with Damascus were frozen not only by the USA, but also by the European Union. In 2006 The UN Security Council indorsed a plan to establish a mixed Lebanese and international tribunal for investigation of the assassination and judging the guilty. However, for its establishment is essential a functioning Lebanese government, but it seems that the Syrian government does not wish for that. Still in the same year, six pro-Shiite ministers resigned from the government of the Prime Minister Siniora, and the pro-Syrian Lebanese President Émile Lahoud subsequently impugned its legitimacy and decisions, among others also the ones on establishment of the tribunal.
Based on the Taif Agreement, Syria had a dominant position in the Lebanese politics – especially in the matter of presidential election. That was manifested already in 2004, when Lahoud’s mandate was prolonged despite the fact that article 49 of the Lebanese constitution says that after the end of a six-year mandate, the president cannot be re-elected sooner than after another six-year interval has passed. Lahoud’s mandate definitely came to an end on 23rd November 2007, but the election of a new president raised the worse political crisis in the country since the end of the civil war. The U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as President George W. Bush warned Syria from interfering in political events in Lebanon (21), but on the other hand the international community, especially the European Union, calls for Syria to exert their influence and to take part in stabilization of the country.
Since September the Lebanese have been unable to elect their new president. The parliamentary meetings have been constantly put off, because the pro-Syrian opposition formed mainly by the Amal and the Hezbollah movements and the pro-Western governing parties led by Saad Hariri and Fuad Sinior could not come to an agreement at first on the common candidate and later on the post-electional organization. As a compromise, both parties already basically agreed that the new president will be elected the leader of the Lebanese Army Commander Michel Sleiman. Sleiman is acceptable for both the opposition and Syria. He is officially known for his political neutrality. Émile Lahoud nominated him into the function still before the withdrawal of the Syrian armed forces from the country, when Damascus used to make decisions on Lebanese politics. Sleiman’s brother-in-law was a spokesman of the former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Besides that, he refused engagement of the armed forces during the street demonstrations led by the supporters of Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun. Although after the war with Israel his army accupied the southern part of Lebanon, he stated that his aim is not disarmament of Hezbollah (22).
However, in order to elect Sleiman, first the parliament has to amend the constitution which at present ordains that a president can be only a person who was not in any state function over the last two years before the election for the function. The agreement is also complicated by other requirements of the opposition. They require to determine who will be the next Prime Minister and how the governing posts will be delivered. At the same time they request to establish the veto right, i.e. a defined blocking majority which could be exerted when voting on important issues of home and international policy – also in the matters of the justice tribunal investigating Hariri’s death, disarmament of Hezbollah or the international policy orientation of the country.
While the powers concentrated around Saad Hariri, the son of murdered Rafik Hariri, are trying to transform Lebanon into a modern pro-Western country, which would attract foreign and Arab investments and offer own financial, bank and tourism service to the whole region – in a manner of a Hong-Kong of the Middle East – the opposition has a diamentrally different vision of the country’s future. They imagine Lebanon as a state – fort, the only effective Arab resistance against Israel. This identity based on the culture of resistance, saqafat el mouqawama, a source of courage and honour, is in its ideological conception anti-Western, and besides financial support is the strongest bound between these forces and their Syrian-Iranian partners. Thus further development of the political situation in Lebanon is almost vital for Syria. The future Lebanese government will decide on further direction of the country. It is also a concern of Damascus, that the government will not be established by the pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli parties. Syria perceives this possibility as a threat to their own security and it would surely not leave it without any reaction. Therefore it seems that the suremost way to the stability of Lebanon is to establish friendly relations with Syria. It is because Syria has legal and illegal destabilizing means and does not hesitate to use them in case its interests are endangered.
From the legal means, the last time they used closing the boarders between the two states. It has blocked groceries and agricultural products import across the Syrian-Lebanese boarders since 21st January (23). Later on was stated that the restrictions apply only to personal cars, buses and trucks without a licence to import these types of products (24). Because Syria is the largest exportin and the second largest importing partner of Lebanon, a total blocade for Lebanon would mean further deepening of the current crisis.
According to the opinion of a part of the international community and Lebanese coalition powers, from the illegal or less transparent destabilization means Syria turns mainly to supporting radical and terrorist movements and assassinations in the Lebanese territory. Yet while the USA declares Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization, Syria insists that it is a regular political party. A fact is that their political wing became a part of the Lebanese government in the 2005 elections. On the other hand, their military wing in fact occupies both a great part of Beirut as well as the whole southern Lebanon, where they created a military infrastructure independent from the official Lebanese army. Financial and military support for Hezbollah has been coming from Iran for years – through the Syrian territory. Their support for “terrorist Hezbollah and other organizations” was the main reason why the USA imposed economic sanctions against Syria in 2004 and prolonged their validity already for the second time (25).
Besides the mentioned ‘proxy war’ Syria is supposed to lead against the pro-Western Lebanese powers through Hezbollah, Damascus is directly accused of a number of assassination attempts in the territory of Lebanon. To start with the one on Rafik Hariri, others are assassinations of the Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel, pro-Western MPs Antoine Ghanem and Walid Eido, the Brigadier General François Hajj, or the recent assassination of Captain Wisam Eid. Eid was involved in investigation of preceding political murders Syria is suspected of. Over the last three years, at least thirty bomb attacks were commited in Lebanon, aimed mostly at anti-Syrian politicians or journalists. Current anti-Syrian leadership in Beirut accuses Syria of a continuous efforts to interfere in the interior matters of Lebanon, to destabilize the country and to weaken the coalition’s position in the parliament. However, Damascus resolutely denies the accusations and arrogates them to “the enemies of Lebanon” (26). The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, as it could be predicted, stands on the side of Syria and accuses Israel from the assassinations: “It is Israel who is behind the murders. It wants to unleash a conflict and inner fight in Lebanon” (27). Saad Hariri naturally has a different point of view and claims that „the hands of Syria are everywhere”.
Just as in case of Hezbollah, the USA denotes the Palestinian Hamas Movement as a terrorist organization, and Syria (who supports the movement) as a state supporting terrorism. On the contrary, Syria insists that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement and a political party fighting for freedom of Palestinian people, and it supports the movement economically, but above all politically in an open way. Damascus became a seat of exil leaders of the movement and when its representatives were not invited to the conference in Annapolis in November because they refused to recognize Israel as a state, Damascus organized their own conference. It was originally supposed to take place at the same time as the summit in Annapolis. Because Syria was promised that the negotiations in Maryland will be also about returning of the Golan Heights, the organization put off the conference. Eventually it took place on 23rd – 25th January 2008, under the slogan of Palestinian rights and unity. The main points of the conference were confirmation of the right of the Palestinian refugees to return, resistance against Israel and national unity. More than nine hundred Arab and international personalities participated, as well as eight main Palestinian groups and movements, with the exception of the Fatah movement, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which despite the invitation decided to boycott the conference. However, it was attended – among others – by the Palestinian offset of Hezbollah seated in Syria, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad seated in Lebanon, which with the support of Iran considerably participated in the assassinations in the territory of Israel during both intifadas. It was established in the turn of the 1970s and 1980s and inspired by both the Islamic revolution and radical Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. It was only in comparison with those groups that Palestinian Jihadists came with a new concept: according to them, the unity of the Islamic world proclaimed by the Iranian Revolution is not a basic condition of Palestine’s liberation, but the opposite – liberation of Palestine is a key to uniting the whole Arab world.
The conference was also attended by the members of terrorist organisation Popular Resistance Commitees, whose highest representative and his wife were killed in an attack of Israeli helicopter in the Ghaza stripe on 17th January 2008, or the nationalist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) – operating against Israel, especially in Lebanon. According to the Fatah representative Ahmad Abdel Rahman, by organizing the conference Syria unequivocally expressed their support to the Hamas revolution and thus even deepened the inner disunity of the Palestinian political scene. In his opinion, Syria should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Palestine. At the same time he tried to dispel the concerns of Syria, when he stated that „Palestinian Authority will not separately pursue an accord with Israel. Any accord will be carried out according to Arab strategy, which holds that Israel must withdraw from Arab territory that was conquered in 1967, which includes the Syrian Golans.” He also added that „thus, there is no reason for Syria’s fears and there is no need for Syrian involvement in the internal affairs” of Palestine (28). The Palestine Liberation Organization denoted the conference as a „carneval” organized by Damascus with an objective to increase their influence in the region. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the same time expressed his support to the Palestinian resistance, which in his opinion is a guarantee of freedom and dignity (29). In any case, Syria clearly stands behind Hamas, because its very existence means that Palestinian Arabs will not conclude the “shameful” peace with Israel, which they have been bid to do by the international community.
Syria asserts the right, or even the duty of the refugees to return to Palestine also in relation to Iraq. At present, almost 1.5 million Iraqis live in Syria and more than 30,000 more cross the Syrian boarder every month. This was a reason why in September 2007 Syria closed the boarders to the holders of Iraqi passports, except businessmen and academic workers. Thus the boarders remained open only to a small part of the 3,000 – 5,000 refugees who currently cross the boarders from the Iraqi side every day. At that time the Iraqis could automatically get three-month visa at any boarder crossing with Syria, but now Syria made the visa conditions more strict. For instance Jordan, the second main target of Iraqi refugees did that already two years ago. In November, Iraq promised Syria 15 mil. USD for the expenses related to the refugees as well as a helping hand in implementing the visa system (30). On 26th November 2007, Syria and Iraq renewed their diplomatical contact, interrupted for almost twenty years because of Syria’s support of Iran in the eight-year war with Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime. At that time both countries were led by competing fractions of the Baath Party. Baath (Socialist Arab Rebirth Party) with its socialist ideas gained more distinct influence only in these two countries. Despite the fact that Syria and Iraq were based on similar structures and nationalist and socialist principles of the Baath Party, there were a few crucial problem areas in mutual relations of the two countries. The first area was the schism arising inside the very Baath Party in the 1960s, which caused that there were two wings standing against each other: the socialist Syrian wing lead by the President Hafez al-Assad, and the nationalist Iraqi wing of the Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, later impersonated by the dictator Saddam Hussein. Another also important point was the religious aspect. While in Syria the Party leadership has been closely interconnected with the minor sect of Alawits, originally based on the Shiite doctrine, on the contrary in Iraq mainly the Sunnis were in the leading positions of the party. The relations between Syria and Iraq froze also when during the Iraqi-Iranian war Syria supported their religiously closer ally, which indesputably was the Shiite Iran. The American invasion to Iraq in some way played into the cards of Syria and Iran, when it got them rid of the Iraqi Baath and Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi-Syrian rapprochement allowed in January a visit of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who lived in exile in Syria in the past. His Syrian colleague Bashar al-Assad promised that he will strive for “deracination of terrorism”. Both Syria and Iran are facing the accusations of encourageing violence in Iraq from the side of the USA (31). While according to Washington Iran provides weapons for the Shiite militants, Syria is said to allow the Sunni rebels to cross the boarders with Iraq. Naturally, both governments deny the accusations. The Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Bassam Abdel Majeed commented this issue as follows: “Our aim is to help Iraqi people to get over the crisis and to protect their own territory.” (32) However, renewal of diplomatic relations was more important for Syria than the renewal of trade exchange between the two countries. Even before the visit of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in fall, both states signed several agreements on economic cooperation, above all on re-opening the Syrian-Iraqi oil pipeline which had been closed since the invasion to Iraq in March 2003. Iraq is interested in opening to the Syrian market, and building investments and renewing oil transfer to the Mediterranian coast through Syria. At the same time Syria needs Iraqi oil. Thus the oil becomes a uniting element between the two rivals.
Syria and Iran have been connected through economic as well as political relations for a long time. In 1979 Syria supported the revolution in Iran, which brought the Shiite religious regime to power. At present, it is a pillar of the currently governing Alawite minority. The relation of the Syrian secular Baathist and Iranian theocratic regimes began a long time ago, even before their common work – Hezbollah. They were connected by common enemies: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, pro-American Turkey and Israel. When the war between Iran and Iraq broke out in 1980, Syria as the only Arab country supported Iran.
Although Iranian-Syrian alliance has never been trouble-free, for instance when we take into consideration that until very recently both states used to fight about the position of a leader in the Muslim world, but also their ability to overcome even considerable unsuccess, to re-evaluate their mutual relations regularly and above all their unwilingness to compromise in relation to their national security have proven many times that their mutual relations are more than just a marriage of convenience. Their alliance cannot be destroyed by vague promises of Washington or other states. Possible peace between Syria and Israel could lead to re-definition of the conditions of their alliance, but surely not to its termination. In 2005 they created the “common front” with the aim of resisting the threats from the outside. Both countries are in a conflict state with the USA, which accuse them of supporting terrorism and of attempts to produce weapons of mass destruction, therefore they imposed economic sanctions on the countries. It was under their influence that the economies became considerably close. At present, they are interconnected by a series of economic, trading, industrial, tourist and energy contracts. The volume of their mutual trading exchange is continuously growing. Last year it exceeded 200 mil. USD (in comparison to 115 mil. USD in 2005). At the end of 2007 the volume of Iranian investment projects in Syria highly exceeded 1.5 mld. USD. Since 2006 have been opened two factories of the Syrian-Iranian automobile company SIAMCO producing Sham and Saba family sedans designed in Iran. Shares of Iran in companies with a capital of 60 and 50 mil. USD is 80 %, the shares of Syria 20 %. Besides that, the Syrian National Cement Company established a joint venture with an Iranian company with 198 mil. USD initial capital investment. Further projects of a 600 mil. USD volume are currently negotiated. Syria has strengthened trading relations with Tehran also in the energy sector. In november 2007 both countries signed a contract on natural gas supply through Turkey to Syria. Syria will start importing Iranian gas at the end of 2009 after finishing the natural gas pipeline between Aleppo, Syria and Kilis, Turkey. The volume of 3 mil. cubic meters of natural gas in the first three years was agreed. In 2013 this volume will be increased to 9 mil. m3 per day. (33)
Relations with Turkey did not use to be as friendly as nowadays. Syria was under its rule for a few centuries and some conflicts have remained unsolved until now. In the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey would accuse Syria from hiding the leader of Kurdish MPs Abdullah Öcalan. After Syria expelled Öcalan from the country in 1998 under the pressure of Ankara, and after he was imprisoned later on in Turkey, their mutual relations improved. Both countries have had a common interest since the U.S. invasion to Iraq: a numerous Kurdish minority lives in both countries, in Turkey it represents approximately 20 % and in Syria 10 % of the population. Both countries strive to prevent independence of the northern Iraqi region Kurdistan which inspires to separatism also their Kurdish minorities.
Also that was the reason why Syrian-Turkish relations have considerably developed throughout last years, especially in 2007, when the Syrian President Assad on his visit to Ankara in October signed also a contract establishing a free trade zone between the two countries. Besides that, the countries agreed at the beginning of January 2008 on establishing a common oil enterprise and on already mentioned natural gas supplies from Iran (34). On the political level both presidents – Bashar al-Assad and Abdullah Gül agreed on a need of peace-making in the Middle East.
Such strengthening of Turkish-Syrian relations is rather not according to the U.S. taste, which consider Turkey a key ally in the region. However, exactly what the USA are afraid of could in their efforts to isolate Iran be of a much greater effect than fiery accusing speeches, economic sanctions or unsuccessful conferences. Cooperation with Turkey is very important for Syria from the point of view of the domestic policy. A great part of Syrian Sunni majority representing 75 % of Syrian population does not approve of Assad’s close relations with the theocratic Tehran. Turkey is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country and its moderate regime represents an ideal counterweight to Iran. Yet it is questionable, whether it is only a counterweight, or an alternative. Further strengthening of Turkey’s importance in Syria could lead to weakening of the position of Iran in Damascus and thus in the whole region. It is interesting that in his speech in the ceremonial opening the year of Damascus, the capital of Arab culture, the Syrian President Assad specially highlighted the very superstandard Turkish-Arab relations. Could this year mean a turning-point in the development of Syrian policy?
(1) Syria Condemns All Forms of Terrorism. SANA. 13. 1. 2008. http://www.sana.org/eng/28/2008/01/13/156251.htm
(2) Bašár Asad – bývalý oční chirurg odpůrcem USA v oblasti. ČTK. 28. 5. 2007.
(3) Vráťte Golanské výšiny, bude mier, odkázal Asad Izraelu. SITA. 17. 7. 2007.
(4) Tamtiež. Vráťte Golanské výšiny, bude mier, odkázal Asad Izraelu. SITA. 17. 7. 2007. http://aktualne.centrum.sk/zahranicie/clanok/clanek.phtml?id=242400
(5) Derfner, Larry: Rattling the Cage: Why Israel must talk to Syria. The Jerusalem Post. 8. 11. 2006. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1162378355985&pagename=
(6) Izrael bagatelizoval vyhlídky na obnovená jednání se Sýrií. ČTK. 29. 11. 2007.
(7) Barak, Ravid: Israel, Syria message exchange ends in failure. Haaretz. 22. 12. 2007. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/936881.html
(8) Tamtiež. Barak, Ravid: Israel, Syria message exchange ends in failure. Haaretz. 22. 12. 2007. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/936881.html
(9) Israelis ‘blew apart Syrian nuclear cache’. Sunday Times. 16. 9. 2007. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article2461421.ece
(10) Sanger, David E.; Mazzetti, Mark: Israel Struck Syrian Nuclear Project, Analysts Say. New York Times. 14. 10. 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/14/washington/14weapons.html
(11) Kessler, Glenn; Wright, Robin: Israel, U.S. Shared Data On Suspected Nuclear Site. WashingtonPost. 21. 9. 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/20/
(12) Pozri: http://www.antiwar.com/justin/?articleid=11756.
(13) Pozri: Syrians deny report of nuclear link with North Korea. Forbes.
(14) Izrael poprvé potvrdil zářijový nálet na Sýrii. ČTK. 2. 10. 2007. http://www.ct24.cz/vyhledavani/clanok_view.php?id=232500
(15) Izrael: Naše vojenské lietadlá neútočili v Sýrii. TASR. 6. 9. 2007. http://www.sme.sk/c/3473968/Izrael-Nase-vojenske-lietadla-neutocili-v-
(16) Izrael poprvé potvrdil zářijový nálet na Sýrii. ČTK. 2. 10. 2007. http://www.ct24.cz/vyhledavani/clanok_view.php?id=232500
(17) Izrael: Naše vojenské lietadlá neútočili v Sýrii. TASR. 6. 9. 2007. http://www.sme.sk/c/3473968/Izrael-Nase-vojenske-lietadla-neutocili-v-
(19) Riceová: USA nebudú stáť v ceste rokovaniam medzi Izraelom a Sýriou. SITA. 19. 9. 2007. http://www.sme.sk/c/3494736/Riceova-USA-nebudu-stat-v-ceste-rokovaniam-
(20) Pochovali zavraždeného libanonského expremiéra. Národná obroda. 17. 2. 2005. http://www.obroda.sk/clanok/24071/Pochovali-zavrazdeneho-libanonskeho-
(22) Loutfi, Ahmed; Al-Korachi, Aliaa: Liban : Le casse-tête. Al-Ahram. 18. 1. 2008.
(23) Pozri: Blocus alimentaire imposé par la Syrie vers le Liban. 21. 1. 2008. http://lebnanews.com/Newlib/content/view/2224/, http://french.peopledaily.com.cn/International/6343226.html
(24) Un responsable libanais nie le blocus alimentaire imposé par la Syrie. Casafree.com. 23. 1. 2008. http://www.casafree.com/modules/news/article.php?storyid=12107
(25) Washington predĺžil platnosť sankcií proti Sýrii. SITA/AFP/AP. 10. 5. 2007. http://www.spravy.fmg.sk/clanky/washington-predlzil-platnost-sankcii-proti-
(26) Pozri: Při útoku v Bejrútu zemřel libanonský poslanec. ČTK. 13. 6. 2007. http://www.ct24.cz/vyhledavani/clanok_view.php?id=218496. a V Bejrútu zavražděn vyšetřovatel politických atentátů. ČTK. 25. 1. 2008. http://www.ct24.cz/zesveta/clanok_view.php?id=250414
(27) Nasralláh: Za vraždami libanonských politikov je Izrael. SITA. 5. 10. 2007. http://www.sme.sk/c/3522512/Nasrallah-Za-vrazdami-libanonskych-politikov-
(28) Waked, Ali: PA to Syria: Butt out. Israel News. 12. 1. 2008.
(29) Damascus: Palestinian National Conference seeks a common policy of resistance against Israeli atrocities. Al-Masakin News Agency. 24. 1. 2008. http://almasakinnewsagency.blogspot.com/2008/01/damascus-palestinian-
(30) Irak ponúkne Sýrii 15 miliónov dolárov na irackých utečencov. SITA/AFP. 20. 11. 2007. http://www.sme.sk/c/3596820/Irak-ponukne-Syrii-15-milionov-dolarov-na-
(31) Bush zaútočil na Irán a Sýriu. SITA. 12. 1. 2008. http://www.webnoviny.sk/svet/clanok/2601/Bush-zautocil-na-Iran-a-Syriu.html
(32) Začalo ďaľšie kolo rokovaní o irackej bezpečnosti. SITA. http://www.sme.sk/c/3430401/Zacalo-dalsie-kolo-rokovani-o-irackej-
(33) AFP, 7. 1. 2008.