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St. Petersburg Times (Florida) February 26, 2005

Suspicion defines Syria's international relationships

By Susan Taylor Martin

Why is Syria so much in the news these days?

Syria is suspected of involvement in the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the popular former prime minister of neighboring Lebanon. Hariri had increasingly opposed Syria's military occupation of Lebanon and its control of Lebanese politics. The Bush administration also accuses Syria of supporting the insurgency in neighboring Iraq.

Did Syria have anything to do with Hariri's killing?

There is no firm evidence. Some analysts think Syrian intelligence agents might have played a role in killing the man perceived as a growing threat to Syria's control of Lebanon. On the other hand, as columnist Pat Buchanan put it, Syrian President Bashar Assad "would have to be the stupidest man on the planet" to order such a high-profile murder when Syria is under so much scrutiny from the Bush administration, Israel and others.

How did Syria get involved in Lebanon in the first place?

The countries have been close since they were ruled by France from 1920 to 1946. Beirut, the Lebanese capital, has been called "the Paris of the Mideast," and many wealthy Syrians do their banking and shopping there. From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was racked by a civil war in which Syria supported various factions. The war ended with an agreement for Syria to temporarily station troops in Lebanon to maintain peace, but the soldiers never left. As a Lebanese critic put it, "Syria has been allowed to get away with pretty much whatever it likes in Lebanon."

Will Syria ever leave Lebanon?

Bowing to international pressure, Syria announced Thursday it would move some of its 15,000 troops closer to its own border but gave no timetable. Syrian officials accuse the United States of a double standard in demanding Syria withdraw from Lebanon while Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Why are Syria and Israel such enemies?

Syria is among the Arab nations that fought wars against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Along with Iran, Syria supports Hezbollah, the militant group that has killed dozens of Israelis. Syria also shelters leaders of other anti-Israel groups, including Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a former University of South Florida instructor who heads the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and lives in Damascus.

Is there any chance of peace between Syria and Israel?

Syria's late ruler, Hafez Assad, insisted the Syrian-Israeli conflict could not be resolved unless it was part of a comprehensive peace agreement that also addressed Palestinian issues. His son, Bashar, has offered to resume talks with no strings attached, but so far has been rebuffed by Israel, which says it doubts his sincerity.

The late President Assad was a ruthless leader who killed as many as 25,000 of his own people to quash a threat from Islamic fundamentalists. Is his son like him?

Many analysts had high hopes for Bashar Assad, 39, who trained as an eye doctor in London and is known as a computer geek. After his father died in 2000, he tried to institute economic and political reforms but quickly ran into opposition from hard-liners and entrenched interests. Some experts think Assad still wants to modernize and liberalize his country, which lacks Iraq's oil wealth, but progress has been slow. However, Syria no longer has the oppressive police state atmosphere it did when Assad's father was in power.

Is Syria an enemy of the United States?

No, insist Syrian officials, who point to cooperation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2002, Syria reportedly tipped off the CIA to a planned attack against U.S. personnel in an undisclosed Persian Gulf country. Syria also has provided intelligence on other Islamic groups and individuals linked to al-Qaida. In an interview with the New York Times editorial board last fall, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said Syrian officials "gave me some information with respect to financial activities (of insurgents in Iraq) and how we can cooperate more fully on that."

Why, then, is the Bush administration taking such a tough line on Syria?

The administration says Syria has sheltered top officials of Saddam Hussein's regime and supported the insurgency in other ways. In a tape aired this week on an Iraqi TV network, a man claiming to be a Syrian intelligence officer said he helped train insurgents to behead and build car bombs to attack U.S. and Iraqi troops. Neither the man's identity nor the tape's authenticity has been verified.

What steps can the administration take against Syria?

Short of military action, not many. The United States already has recalled its ambassador to Damascus and imposed tough sanctions, including a ban on most U.S. exports to Syria other than food and medicine. President Bush says he will wait to see whether Syria withdraws from Lebanon before asking the United Nations to impose international sanctions.

Would the United States attack Syria?

Most experts doubt the United States could afford to get involved in another war when it still has so many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there could be limited strikes. Israel has hit militant targets in Damascus and U.S. troops reportedly have entered Syria from Iraq in pursuit of insurgents.

How big a threat does Syria pose to the United States itself?

The State Department lists Syria as a "state sponsor of terrorism," primarily for its support of Hezbollah. The organization has run training camps in Lebanon's Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley, where terrorists from around the world reportedly are taught to forge identification, make bombs and plot assassinations. Hezbollah has not been suspected of any overt anti-American acts in years, but it killed enough Americans in Lebanon during the civil war to make it second only to al-Qaida in causing U.S. deaths. Syria itself is a relatively poor, small county (its population is just 18-million), and its military is no match for either Israel or the United States.

- SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times senior correspondent

SYRIA AT A GLANCE

HISTORY

Damascus, settled about 2500 B.C., is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a brilliant culture rivaling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla. Over the ages, Syria has seen invasions and occupations by almost all the great powers of the region. In 1517, Syria fell under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. After the breakup of their empire after World War I, Syria was ruled by the French until independence in 1946. After a long period of instability, the pan-Arab Baath (Renaissance) Party took control in 1963. (The Baath movement also came to power in Iraq.) The government has been characterized by authoritarian rule, which has eased somewhat since 2000 under President Bashar Assad.

PEOPLE

POPULATION: 18.2-million.

ETHNIC GROUPS: Arabs (90 percent), Kurds (9 percent), Armenians, Circassians, Turkmen.

RELIGIONS: Sunni Muslim (74 percent), Alawite Muslim (12 percent), Christians (10 percent), Druze (3 percent), and small numbers of other Muslim sects, Jews and Yazidis.

MAJOR LANGUAGES: Arabic (official), English and French (widely understood), Kurdish.

LITERACY: 89.7 percent male, 64 percent female.

LIFE EXPECTANCY: 68 years male, 71 years female.

GEOGRAPHY

AREA: 71,504 square miles (including Israeli-occupied Golan Heights); slightly larger than North Dakota.

MAJOR CITIES: capital, Damascus (5-million); Aleppo (4.5-million).

ECONOMY

POPULATION BELOW POVERTY LINE (2003 ESTIMATE): 20 percent.

GDP PER CAPITA (2003 ESTIMATE): $1,165.

INDUSTRIES: petroleum, textiles, food processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate mining.

MAJOR EXPORTS: crude oil, petroleum products, fruits and vegetables, textiles, cotton.

GOVERNMENT

TYPE: republic (under military regime).

HEAD OF STATE: President Bashar Assad, since July 2000.

Military: 30-month service for males over 18. Army: roughly 215,000 active duty (2002). Air force: roughly 40,000 active; one of the largest in the Middle East. Small navy.

Sources: CIA World Factbook, State Department Background Notes, Energy Information Administration, GlobalSecurity.org.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, ASSOCIATED PRESS; MAP; PHOTO; A family picnics on Kassioun mountain, high above the Syrian capital of Damascus.; Map of Syria locates major cities; Bashar Assad


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