Syria — January 2010

Sociopolitical Situation

During the second half of 2009, Syria continued its steady emergence from the isolation imposed by the international community since 2005. The October visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (his first since he assumed the throne in 2005) was hailed as groundbreaking by Middle East observers. Relations between the two countries remained strong throughout 2000-2005, when Syria fully backed the Saudi plan for peace, but soured after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, a long-time friend of the Saudis. King Abdullah’s visit has stirred up anticipation, as there are efforts surrounding the peace process that concern Syria in a number of ways, most prominently Turkey’s mediation between Syria and Israel.

The dialogue Turkey and Syria have developed (which is inclusive of Lebanon) has recently taken the form of a joint military maneuver on their shared border. Although the Turkish-Syrian exercise might be inconsequential militarily (given it is relatively small and the fact that it is dwarfed by past Turkish-Israeli exercises), it has important political ramifications. Ankara and Damascus are overcoming their old differences and have improved their cultural, political and socioeconomic ties. Turkey resisted siding with former U.S. President George W. Bush’s policy of isolating Syria and served instead alongside France as a conduit for opening Damascus to the outside world.

Economically, Syria still depends on its oil sector, which provides half of government revenues and about two-thirds of export earnings. In 2009, lower oil prices in addition to a slowdown in domestic economic growth had a negative impact on Syria’s fiscal situation. The budget deficit is widening to 2.7% of GDP, from an estimated 0.9% in 2008. This should improve as forecasters expect a deficit of 1.2% of GDP. Considerable challenges lie ahead, and Syria’s future economic development needs to include more committed economic reforms. High tariff and non-tariff barriers limit overall trade freedom. The country’s institutional capacity to enhance property rights and tackle corruption effectively remains weak. Persistent state influence in most areas of the economy taints the civil service and makes court rulings vulnerable to political influence.

Religious Situation

The Syrian constitution provides freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that religious rites do not disturb the public order. However, the government has continued to prosecute persons aggressively for their alleged membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist movements and continues to outlaw Jehovah’s Witnesses. The country has a population of 20 million; Sunnis constitute 74% of the population and are present throughout the country. Other Muslim groups include Alawites, Ismailis and Shiites and together constitute 13% of the population. The Druze, a syncretistic sect, account for 3% of the population. Various Christian groups constitute the remaining 10%. The minority Alawite sect holds an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers because President Assad and his family are Alawites.

The government restricts full freedom of choice in religious matters. It does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to Christianity, but it recognizes a Christian who converts to Islam. A Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman can marry a Muslim man. While there is no civil law prohibiting proselytizing, the government discourages it and occasionally prosecutes missionaries for “posing a threat to the relations among religious groups.” There have been reports that the government has given Shiites favorable treatment and allowed Shiite missionaries to construct mosques and convert Sunnis. Anecdotal reports claim Shiite missionaries, supposedly backed by Iranian interests, provided financial incentives to individuals converting from the Sunni to the Shiite community. The government does not consider this missionary activity as proselytizing because the country makes no legal distinction between the various Islamic sects.

The civil code for Catholics provides special provisions for Catholics, involving inheritance rights, the jurisdiction of Christian courts, the legal marriage age, the legality of mixed marriages for Catholics, and adoption. To date, the government had not passed legislation on personal status for Orthodox Christians. Orthodox Christians, therefore, remained subject to the personal status law for Muslims, except for marriage and divorce.

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