Syria — January 2007

Sociopolitical Situation

The Syrian regime is still facing mounting international pressure some 22 months after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik el Hariri. Yet it continues to consolidate its power and adopt a more defiant stance both in the region and toward the West.

Internally, the regime has resorted to repressive measures, imprisoning opposition figures and banning lectures and meetings. It was reported that several civil society activists were arrested, notably the lawyer Anwar el Bunny and the writer Michel Kilo among others.

On the international level, and with the U.S. policy in Iraq now under review, Syria decided to normalize its diplomatic relations with Iraq. The Syrian Minister for Foreign Affairs visited Baghdad in November 2006, and the two countries reopened their embassies in Damascus and Baghdad.

On the other hand, Syria still refuses to formally demarcate its borders with Lebanon or agree to establish diplomatic relations. Lately, following the passage of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, which ended hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the Syrian government refused to accept the deployment of foreign troops along the border claiming that this would be a hostile act against Syria. Moreover, political observers consider that the Syrian regime is attempting to obstruct the creation of an international tribunal to try those involved in the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister.

At present, the Syrian government finds itself between two competing mindsets: one anti-American and pan-Arab and the other that is pro reform and Western oriented. Syrian public opinion often equates the American model of democracy with the chaos and sectarian fragmentation of Iraq. The Syrian opposition accuses the government of exploiting “fundamentalist threats” to defuse pressure for democratic change, and many opposition figures are no longer calling for radical reform, but rather demanding comprehensive change.

Some political observers believe that President Bashar el Assad, now having consolidated control, should allow for greater reform, economically and politically.

Economically, Syria is a full participant of the Barcelona Process according to which the European Union will create a Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010. Presently, the EU provides assistance to the Syrian government to meet the EU cooperation objectives based on thorough assessment. The economic situation in Syria shows clear signs of stagnation and inadequate economic policies.

The main challenges facing Syria for the medium term are the diminishing of oil reserves, rapid population growth and environmental degradation.

There is a major need for reform is in the following sectors: institution building, industrial modernization, human resources development, trade enhancement and human rights.

Religious Situation

The Christian population in Syria (10% of the total population) shares with their compatriots the same fear of chaos and fragmentation in case of radical change. Moreover, looking at the Iraqi Christian experience, their fears have become more intense. In fact, the remaining Iraqi Christians (around 25,000) are facing all kinds of threats and dangers (kidnapping, death threats and forcing the girls to wear veils). At present, Syria is the only country receiving the vast majority of Christian refugees, and the government is supporting the efforts of the Catholic religious leaders to provide accommodations for them and access to health care.

The Council of Catholic churches in Syria held its annual meeting in Aleppo on 27 November at the Chaldean church. The council was headed by Patriarch Gregorios III of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and attended by all the Catholic bishops in Syria. On the council’s agenda were reports from the various churches in the country.

In the session on ecumenical affairs, the Middle East Council of Churches presented a working paper, “New Vision of Ecumenical Work,” which stressed three main issues: the Christian presence in the Middle East, the celebration of Easter on the same day and the relationships of churches with the MECC.

Finally, it is worth noting that in the past month, a new law was ratified allowing the Catholic rite to have its own civil status (including matters concerning heritage).

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