Syria — June 2007

Sociopolitical situation

Syria’s isolation (even within the Arab world), due to the findings of the UN inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik el Hariri, may be relaxed if the United States deems it necessary to seek partners in its exit strategy for Iraq.

Since the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah last summer, evidence of Syrian compliance with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for Syria not to support Hezbollah, has been unpersuasive. On 17 April 2007, the UN Security Council welcomed the Secretary General’s intention to evaluate the situation along the Syria-Lebanon border, but the Syrian government threatened to close the border if such a measure is taken.

Internally, the most important challenges to the secular and socialist Ba’ath regime are from Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood remains banned in Syria, there has been a strong revival of the practice of the Islamic faith. With former vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam turning against the government from his exile in Paris, the government is jittery and continues to detain political opponents.

The results of the April-May parliamentary and presidential elections, while strengthening the control of the Ba’ath Party, confirmed accusations of Syrian totalitarianism.

Economically, the two main pillars of the Syrian economy have been agriculture and oil. Agriculture accounts for 25% of the GDP and employs 42% of the total labor force. Half of the Syrian government’s income and two-thirds of its exports are provided by oil revenues. Long-term economic prospects are clouded by projections that Syria’s oil reserves will be exhausted by 2012.

Any economic gains in recent decades have fallen below general global patterns of growth and have been outdone by rapid population growth. As a result, a protracted economic crisis has brought about falling living standards and high levels of unemployment, estimated to be between 25 to 30%. A considerable part of the Syrian labor force still works in Lebanon.

The presence of some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees is provoking an unexpected demand, especially on the real estate market, causing major increase in rental fees of apartments as well as in consumer goods.

Syria has signed a free trade agreement with Turkey, which came into force in January 2007, and initiated an Association Agreement with the European Union, which has yet to be signed and also has made progress in easing its heavy foreign debt through bilateral rescheduling deals with its key creditors in Europe, most importantly Russia, Germany and France. It has also settled its debt with Iran and the World Bank.

Religious Situation

From 19 to 21 April 2007, the heads of the Oriental Orthodox churches, Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Catholicosate of Cilicia, held their 10th annual meeting, at St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Monastery, near Damascus. After deliberations, a common declaration was released addressing issues related to the family of the Oriental Orthodox churches and its theological dialogues with various churches, and discussed matters related to dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation of Churches of the Reformation.

The fourth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches took place in Rome, at the offices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, from 28 January to 3 February 2007.

The fifth meeting of the International Commission will take place from 27 January to 2 February 2008, again at St. Ephrem Monastery, at the invitation of Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I.

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