March 16, 2011 - Syria in the News: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 16-03-2011

Regional Unrest

In the last week, the surge in violence in Libya and to a lesser extent, Bahrain and Yemen, ensured that international media coverage of the recent uprisings in the Middle East remained intense.
While in weeks prior, journalists and political analysts offered up detailed analyses of the absence of political unrest here, last week showed a relative calming of such media coverage. There were protests here on March 15th yet participants were few in number. Syria did come up quite often, however, in the periphery of reportage on unrest in neighboring states.

The Economist ran a piece, “Throwing Money at the Street,” that detailed the efforts of various Arab regimes to appease their citizenry with lavish spending and promises of increased job opportunities. Syria was mentioned due to recent commitments to raise wages, among much else. 

As the international community, driven largely by France and Britain, contemplates the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya, much was made of the Arab League’s decision to support such demands. Throughout related discussions, Syria expressed strong reservations about the need to respect Libya’s sovereignty and the right of the people and government to manage the increasing unrest in the absence of international interference – particularly from the west.

The discussions revolving around the no-fly zone prompted a number of articles exploring Syria’s interests in and strategic concerns regarding Libya, including ABNA.co: “Syria Rejects Any Foreign Intervention in Libya” and Los Angeles Times, “West Not Ready to Intervene in Libya Yet.” At the same time, Xinhua, a leading Chinese news source, also reported on Syria’s alleged shipment of arms in support of Gaddafi – an accusation fiercely denied by local authorities.

Relatedly, in the blogosphere, we saw two prominent writers cover precisely these topics: Joshua Landis for Syria Comment and Maysaloon, an anonymous Syrian writer known for publishing provocative political commentary.

Syria Today ran two articles analyzing the prospects for Syria-Egypt relations post-Mubarak: “Life After Mubarak” and “Shifting the Balance.” As the ousting of Mubarak marks a profound change in the power dynamics within the region, there is much speculation regarding precisely how this will impact Syria’s strategic interests.

Finally, Human Rights Watch published an article on March 9th, regarding the disappearance of three young Syrian men in Lebanon. One of the men was known to have attempted to organize protests.

Politics & Diplomacy

Setting aside the issue of recent regional unrest, we saw a lot of news on the diplomatic and political front. Forward Magazine ran a piece on US-Syria Track II talks to increase and improve dialogue between Damascus and Washington. The talks will be hosted by former US President Jimmy Carter at the Carter Center and will feature a number of prominent Syrian politicians, intellectuals, and businessmen. Regardless, tensions between the US and Syria remain strong, particularly over the issue of IAEA nuclear inspections. On March 10, a US lawmaker called for Syria’s suspension from the IAEA.

A meeting between President al-Assad and Iraq’s Iyad Allawi regarding the security situation in Iraq and efforts to improve bilateral relations between the two countries also made the news. 

Syria’s tumultuous relationship with Lebanon was also in the spotlight following a rally in Beirut on March 14th

Economic Development & Trade

The Financial Times published a feature article on Syria’s efforts to restore the old city of Aleppo, a critical landmark in the history and culture of Syria and the region more broadly. Just months ago, the New York Times ran a similar piece highlighting the success of the restoration efforts. Deteriorating infrastructure – particularly in the plumbing and waste management systems – had sparked a huge decline in the population of Aleppo in the 1980s and 90s. However, recent restoration efforts encouraged both repopulation and a considerable increase in the old city’s real estate values.

Syrian Housing and Development Minister Omar Ebrahim Qalavanji and Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar signed a number of memoranda regarding efforts to increase economic ties between the two countries, including on matters of housing development. Further, Iran’s First Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi announced that the two countries plan to boost their economic ties to 5bn in the coming year. Syria and Iran will also establish their first joint bank within the next three months.

The value of trade between Syria and the US showed a marked increase in 2010 and experts expect this growth to continue. Though significantly hampered by US sanctions, the two countries do engage in the trade of agricultural and petroleum-based products. Last year, US-Syria trade was valued at SYP 43.3bn (USD 941m), up from SYP 27.9bn (USD 607m) in 2009. 

Finally, Syria Today ran a feature article on the need to develop and monitor quality standards in Syrian industries that conform to broadly accepted international standards. The magazine also ran an article on the efforts of Syrian entrepreneurs to develop the country’s creative industries – particularly in IT.

Energy

Iran announced plans to export natural gas to Syria estimated at 5 million cubic meters a day by the end of this year. The exports will begin once construction of the pipeline that runs through Iraq and southern Turkey is complete. 

Syria also announced plans to auction off rights to offshore exploration later this month. The hope is that increased foreign investment in the development of the country’s energy sector will counterbalance the decline in Syria’s oil output.

Security

On March 11, Syrian security forces seized a considerable shipment of explosives, weapons, and night-vision goggles that entered the country from Iraq. The truck was apparently loaded in Baghdad. No information has been released regarding the quantity of weapons that were seized. 

Finally, AFP in Damascus ran an article on a number of Kurds in prisons throughout Syria who have initiated a hunger strike demanding increased political rights. Last week, well-known lawyer and human rights activist, Haythem al-Maleh, was released from prison on a presidential pardon. 

Highlight

This week’s highlight comes from Reuters. On March 10, the news organization ran a feature, “In Syria’s Parched Farmlands, Echoes of Egyptian Woes,” that detailed the struggles of famers in Syria’s now drought-laden Hauran plateau. During Ottoman times, the southwestern plateau was a fertile land capable of meeting much of the surrounding regions’ agricultural needs. However, in recent years severe drought combined with the mismanagement of water supplies has left it, as well as much of eastern Syria, parched. As a result, 800,000 people now live in abject poverty and many thousands have been displaced. The severe dearth of water has left farmers unable to yield enough crops to feed their families and earn a living. It has also lead to a reduction of 80-85 percent of herders' livestock.

The situation is critical enough that in February of this year, the UN's World Food Programme extended its emergency relief operations in Syria, thus aiming to feed an additional 300,000 people. The agency noted that food insecurity, or the inability of people to meet even their most basic nutritional requirements, was spreading. 

As noted in last week’s entry, the government here has initiated a number of projects, including a massive new irrigation system, aimed at mitigating the effects of the drought and improving the lot of the country’s farmers and rural dwellers. However, government focus in recent years on boosting the business and real estate sectors, meant that reforms that would have lessened the plight of the country’s poorest citizens, are late in coming. Unemployment and poverty levels continue to grow. Recently, however, customs duties on fruits, vegetables and rice were lowered and cash handouts for the poor (so far totaling about 420,000 families) were made available - thus lessening the burden for some. In the coming months, we can undoubtedly expect to see further reforms.

Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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