Syria — January 2006

Sociopolitical situation

Since the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafic el Hariri on February 14, 2005, Syria has been facing tremendous waves of intense international pressure exerted mainly by the UN Security Council. Consequently, four resolutions were issued by the latter forcing Syria to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon on April 27, 2005, and an international investigation committee with more than 200 experts and investigators from thirteen different countries was formed to unveil the truth of Hariri’s murder. After six months of investigations, on December 13, 2005, the chief investigator, Mr. Melhiss, submitted his report to the Security Council without final conclusions. The report included strong indications of the involvement of high Syrian security officials in the murder and the “suicide” of the minister of interior, Ghazi Kenaan.

At present, Syria seems to be drifting, neither living up to its previous image of the leading Arab state confronting Israel, nor following the path of many Arab countries in liberalizing its economy and developing close links with the West. It is obvious that if Syria is to ride out the storm, then Damascus will need to adapt to new realities.

Even internally, Bashar el Assad’s brief period of tolerance (political reform) came to an abrupt halt after facing stiff opposition from leading members of the ruling old guard in Damascus. As a result, The government banned all political activities and all human rights forums. Recently, the authorities shut down the “Al Atassi Forum,” the only political forum in Syria.

Economically, the international pressure against Syria seems to have some effect on the currency exchange rate. In December 2005, the national currency devaluated by 20% when the Syrian pound went from SP50 to the US dollar to SP60 and stabilized at the level of SP55. However, in the Syrian regime the central government dominates all aspects of economic life. The published figures probably do not necessarily show the real reaction of the markets.

Religious situation

Christianity in Syria is very ancient. Throughout Byzantine time and well into the era of Islam, Damascus was a center of Christian theological formation and debate. Today, Christians in Syria comprise approximately 8-10% of the total population, estimated at 1.3 million Christians. The majority is Eastern Orthodox under the Patriarchate of Antioch which fled Turkey in 1930 to Damascus. Nevertheless Syria shelters many Christian groups like the Nestorians who were driven out of Iraq in the thirties and the Syrian Orthodox and Armenians who were also driven out of Turkey in the early twentieth century.

Many Catholic minority groups like Melkites, Chaldeans and, Maronites live in harmony with their Orthodox neighbors. Syria does not seem to recognize Islam as the state religion unlike almost all other states of the Middle East except Lebanon. Major Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter are official national holidays. The state television even broadcasts religious programs at Christmas. Each Easter many thousands of Christians take to the streets of Damascus for processions.

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