Syria — January 2008

Sociopolitical situation

Less than three years after the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik el Hariri, Syria may have broken the siege imposed on it by the international community for its alleged involvement in the assassination. Though the United States included Syria on its list of “States Sponsoring Terrorism,” Syria was invited to participate in (and attended) meetings in Annapolis, Maryland, to advance peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. In October 2007, Syria was also invited to the Istanbul council to discuss the future of Iraq, and a meeting was held between the U.S. secretary of state and the Syrian minister of foreign affairs. Observers believe Syria has proven to be an indispensable player in achieving stability in the Middle East.

Internally, freedom of expression and association continues to be restricted. Scores of people were arrested and hundreds remained imprisoned for political reasons, including prisoners of conscience and others sentenced after unfair trials. Discriminatory legislation and practices remain in force against women and the Kurdish minority. Torture and the ill-treatment of those in detention continued to be reported and carried out with impunity. Human rights defenders continued to face arrest, harassment and restrictions on their freedom of movement. Meanwhile, several unauthorized human rights organizations continued to be active, though their members were at risk of arrest, harassment and travel bans.

Economically, the Syrian government has introduced great economic change over the last few years as a result of analyzing the relationship between processes of economic and political liberalization in the domestic arena.

Trying to reinforce his position while launching his liberal political and economic agenda, the president and his reformist collaborators have tried to introduce a new openness to the country, but their efforts are thwarted by the “old guard.”

At present, Syria’s 40-year-old policy of subsidizing everything from electricity to fuel and food is reaching a breaking point. The rising costs of oil, increased fuel smuggling to neighboring countries, and declining state revenues have left the government struggling to pay its bills. Next year’s subsidies will cost the government about $7 billion according to the deputy prime minister of economic affairs. But in the current political and social situation, the elimination of subsidies is difficult. There is a risk of uncontrolled and spontaneous protests because salaries in Syria are very low Any subsidy reform needs include the creation of a fund to support laborers; presently the labor force cannot survive without subsidies.

Religious situation

The ancient churches of Syria, small in number but vibrant in faith, are facing new challenges brought by political instability and religious extremism outside the country’s borders. The war in Iraq has unleashed violence and terrorism by groups claiming to act in the name of Islam, sending tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians — along with many Muslims — fleeing into Syria.

Internally, the churches also faces a major demographic problem, as many of their younger members continue to emigrate. Syria’s Christian community has shrunk in recent years to about 10 percent of the population. Syria’s bishops also make frequent speaking appearances at Islamic meetings to preach tolerance and encourage dialogue. Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Isidore Battikha of Damascus recently found himself cheered by a Muslim audience when he declared that Christians must never be labeled as “infidels.”

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