Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Story of the Day-Syria
Syria is a country in Southwest Asia, bordering the Mediterranean Sea and Lebanon to the west, Israel to the southwest, Jordan to the south, Iraq to the east, and Turkey to the north. The modern state of Syria was formerly a French mandate and attained independence in 1946, but can trace its roots to the fourth millennium BC; its capital city, Damascus, was the seat of the Umayyad Empire and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire.
Syria has a population of 20.3 million. The majority are Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims at 74% of the population. Other Muslim groups include Alawites 11%, Druze and other Muslim sects 5%. There are also various Christian sects constituting 10% of the total population. Since 1963 the country has been governed by the Baath Party; the head of state since 1970 has been a member of the Assad family. Syria's current President is Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad, who held office from 1970 until his death in 2000. Historically, Syria has often included the territories of Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and parts of Jordan, but excluded the Jazira region in the north-east of the modern Syrian state. In this historic sense, the region is also known as Greater Syria or by the Arabic name Bilad al-Sham (بلاد الشام). The Syrian Government has relinquished its claim over the region of İskenderun, now part of the Turkish province of Hatay. The area used to be part of Syria, but Damascus agreed to recognise Turkish soverignty as part of a peace deal within the last decade. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria.
Syria (sēr'ēə) , officially Syrian Arab Republic, republic (2005 est. pop. 18,449,000), 71,467 sq mi (185,100 sq km), W Asia. It borders on Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea in the west, on Turkey in the northwest and north, on Iraq in the east and south, and on Jordan and Israel in the southwest. Damascus is the country's capital and its largest city.
Syria falls into two main geographical regions, a western region and a much larger eastern region. The western region, which includes about two thirds of the country's population, can be subdivided into four parallel north-south zones. In the far west is a narrow, discontinuous lowland strip along the Mediterranean. It is bordered, and partly cut, by the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, a mountain range (average elevation: 4,000 ft/1,220 m; highest point: 5,123 ft/1,561 m) that is crossed by deep valleys. In the east the Jabal al-Nusayriyah drops sharply to the Great Rift Valley, which continues southward into Africa and which in Syria contains the Orontes River. East of the rift are mountain ranges, including the Anti-Lebanon Mts. (which include Mount Hermon, 9,232 ft/2,814 m, Syria's loftiest point) and scattered ranges in NW Syria. Within these ranges are several fertile basins, including ones occupied by Damascus and Aleppo.
The eastern region is made up of a plateau (average elevation: 2,000 ft/610 m), which is in large part bisected by a series of ranges that fan out northeastward from the Anti-Lebanon Mts. In the south are the Jabal al-Duruz Mts., from which the plain of Hawran extends westward to the Sea of Galilee. Other mountains are located in the north. Much of the southern section of the plateau forms part of the Syrian Desert; otherwise, the plateau is largely covered with steppe. There are irrigated, cultivated areas along the Euphrates River in the east, whose basin makes up part of the Fertile Crescent, as does the Mediterranean coast of Syria. The country is divided into 14 provinces. In addition to the capital, other major cities include Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Dayr az Zawr, and Al Hasakah.
Syria has a young and rapidly growing population. Most of the people are of Arab descent and speak Arabic, the country's official language; French and English are understood by many, and Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian are spoken in some areas. The chief minority is the Kurds; others include the Armenians, Turkomans (Turks), Circassians, and Assyrians. About 75% of the country's inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. There are also significant numbers of Shiite Muslims, especially the Alawites, who live in the Jabal al-Nusayriyah; Druze, who live in the south, principally in the Jabal al-Duruz; and smaller Muslim sects; all of these groups comprise about 16% of Syria's population. The largest Christian groups are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox, together comprising about 10% of the population. Before 1992, Syria had a Jewish community of more than 4,000; all but a few hundred left the country after emigration restrictions were lifted in that year.
Syria was an overwhelmingly agricultural country until the early 1960s, when planned large-scale industrialization began. The state plays a major role in all areas of the country's economy. Some 40% of the people earn their living by farming; since 1970 land cultivation has increased more than 50%, largely because of government incentives and wider and more efficient use of irrigation. The best farmland is located along the coast and in the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, around Aleppo, in the region between Hama and Homs, in the Damascus area, and in the land between the Euphrates and Khabur rivers, which is known as Al Jazira [Arab.,=the island]. The principal crops include wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, barley, cotton, tobacco, chickpeas, and lentils. Large numbers of poultry, cattle, and sheep are raised, and dairy products are important. Tourism has expanded in recent years.
Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs are the chief industrial centers. The main manufactures are refined petroleum, textiles, processed food, beverages, chemicals, and precision-engineered products. Handicrafts such as articles of silk, leather, and glass are widely produced. The principal minerals extracted are petroleum, found mainly at Qarah Shuk (Karachuk) in the extreme northeast; natural gas, found mainly in the Al Jazira region; phosphates; limestone; and salt. Petroleum pipelines from Iraq and Jordan cross Syria, and there is also a pipeline from Qarah Shuk to the Mediterranean coast.
Since 1974 oil has been Syria's most important source of revenue, accounting for about 65% of its exports in the late 1990s. Latakia and Tartus are the main seaports. The annual value of Syria's imports is greater than the value of its exports. The principal imports are machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, metals, textiles, chemicals, and consumer goods; the chief exports are petroleum, textiles, farm products, and phosphates. The leading trade partners are Germany, Italy, France, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.
Until the 20th cent. the term Syria generally denoted those lands of the Levant, or eastern littoral of the Mediterranean, that correspond to modern Syria and Lebanon, most of Israel and Jordan, W Iraq, and N Saudi Arabia. Three geographical factors have played major parts in determining the history of Syria—its location on the trade and military routes, its varied topography, and the encroaching desert. Syria has always been an object of conquest, and it has been held by foreign powers during much of its history. One of the earliest settlements was probably at Ugarit; human habitation at Tell Hamoukar in NE Syria dates to at least 4000 B.C. The Amorites, coming c.2100 B.C. from the Arabian peninsula, were the first important Semitic people to settle in the region, and they established many small states.
From the 15th to the 13th cent. B.C. the area probably was part of the empire of the Hittites, although it came under Egyptian rule for long periods during that time. The first great indigenous culture was that of Phoenicia (located mostly in present-day Lebanon), which flourished after 1250 B.C. in a group of trading cities along the coast. In the 10th cent. B.C. two Hebrew kingdoms were organized in Palestine (see also Jews). Syria suffered (11th–6th cent. B.C.) long invasions and intermittent control by the empire of Assyria. Babylonian conquerors also found success in Syria, and Egypt constantly sought to reestablish its position there. The Syrians were subjected to massacres, plundering, and forced deportations.
Under the Persian Empire, with its efficient administrative system, Syria's standard of living improved (6th–4th cent. B.C.). Alexander the Great conquered Syria between 333 and 331 B.C., and his short-lived empire was followed by that of the Seleucidae (see Seleucus I), who are usually called kings of Syria. Their control of Syria was constantly threatened by Egypt, which was ruled by the Ptolemies. The Egyptians usually held the south until Antiochus III conquered (early 2d cent. B.C.) the region, which was generally called Coele Syria, a name which had been vaguely applied to all of W Syria. The Seleucids founded cities and military colonies and introduced Hellenistic civilization to Syria. Syria long showed the revivifying effects of this new culture. Many of the cities became cultural Hellenistic centers, but the change did not reach the lower levels of the population.
When invasions began again, first by the Armenians under Tigranes and then by the Parthians—both in the 1st cent. B.C.—the Hellenistic sheen was soon dulled. The Romans under Pompey conquered the region by 63 B.C., but they continued to fight the Parthians there, and the Syrians benefited little from the Roman presence. Many changes in administration occurred, and Rome drew from Syria numerous soldiers and slaves. The old pagan gods of Syria were also taken up by the Romans. More significant for the future of Syria, Christianity was started in Palestine and soon exerted some influence over all of Syria; St. Paul was converted from Judaism to Christianity on the road to Damascus. In central Syria, Palmyra grew (3d cent. A.D.) to considerable power as an autonomous state, but it was conquered by the Romans when it threatened their ascendancy.
After the division of Rome into the Eastern and Western empires in the 4th cent., Syria came under Byzantine rule. In the 5th and 6th cent. Monophysitism, a Christian heresy with political overtones, gained many adherents in Syria. Byzantine control there was seriously weakened by the 7th cent. Between 633 and 640, Muslim Arabs conquered Syria, and during the following centuries most Syrians converted to Islam. Damascus was the usual capital of the Umayyad caliph (661–750) and enjoyed a period of great splendor. The Umayyads were forcibly displaced by the Abbasids, whose residence was in Iraq, thus ending Syria's dominant position in the Islamic world. At the same time the ties between Muslim Syria and the predominantly Christian southwest (later Lebanon) began to loosen.
Crusaders and Conquerers
Groups of Christians remained in the Muslim areas, and they generally rendered aid to the Christians who came to Syria on Crusades (11th–14th cent.). By the late 11th cent. the Seljuk Turks had captured most of Syria, and the Christians fought against them as well as against Saladin, who triumphed (late 12th cent.) over both the Christians and his fellow Muslims. After Saladin's death (1193), Syria fell into disunity, and in the mid-13th cent. it was overrun by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who destroyed (1260) much of Aleppo and Damascus, massacring about 50,000 inhabitants of Aleppo. The Mongols were defeated later in 1260 by Baybars, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt.
The Mamluks held control of Syria for most of the time until 1516, when the Ottoman Empire annexed the area. The Mamluk period was largely a time of economic stagnation and political unrest. In 1401 the Central Asian conqueror Timur sacked Aleppo and Damascus. For most of the four centuries of Ottoman control, Syria's economy continued to be weak, and its politics remained fragmented. From the later 16th cent., government in Syria was not directly controlled by the Ottomans but was in the hands of several Syrian families who often fought each other. From the late 18th cent. the European powers took an increasing interest in Syrian affairs, the British as friends of the Druze, the Russians as protectors of the Orthodox Christians, and the French as allies of the Roman Catholics (especially the Maronites).
In 1798–99, Napoleon I of France invaded Egypt and also briefly held parts of the Syrian coast. In 1832–33, Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, annexed Syria to Egypt. Egypt held Syria until 1840, when the European powers (particularly Great Britain) forced its return to the Ottomans; during this time Syria's economy was revived and numerous schools were established. During the rest of the 19th cent. the Syrian economy was modernized somewhat and educational opportunities were increased. However, conditions were far from good, and growing resentment of Ottoman rule developed among the Syrians. After bloody fighting between Christians and Druze, Lebanon (largely inhabited by Christians) was given considerable autonomy in 1860.
The Foundations of Modern Syria
During World War I the British encouraged Syrian nationalists to fight against the Ottoman Empire. The ambitions of the nationalists were thwarted in the peace settlement, which gave (1920) France a League of Nations mandate over the Levant States (roughly present-day Syria and Lebanon). From this time the term Syria referred approximately to its present territorial extent. France divided Syria into three administrative districts on the pretext that political decentralization would safeguard the rights of minorities. The Arab nationalists angrily asserted that decentralization was also a means of maintaining French control by a divide-and-rule policy.
The French made some concessions after serious disturbances in 1925, which included a rebellion by the Druze and the French bombardment of Damascus. Lebanon was made a completely separate state in 1926, and after long negotiations a treaty was signed (1936) giving Syria a large measure of autonomy. Anti-French feeling continued as a result of the cession of the sanjak of Alexandretta (see Hatay) to Turkey, completed in 1939. In the same year the French suspended the Syrian constitution, and in World War II they garrisoned Syria with a large number of troops, most of whom, after the fall of France in June, 1940, declared loyalty to the Vichy government. Relations with Great Britain deteriorated, and when it was discovered that Syrian airfields had been used by German planes en route to Iraq, British and Free French forces invaded and occupied Syria in June, 1941.
An Independent Nation
In accordance with previous promises, the French proclaimed the creation of an independent Syrian republic in Sept., 1941, and an independent Lebanese republic in Nov., 1941. In 1943, Shukri al-Kuwatli was elected president of Syria, and on Jan. 1, 1944, the country achieved complete independence. However, the continued presence of French troops in Syria caused increasing friction and bloodshed and strained Anglo-French relations. It was not until Apr., 1946, that all foreign troops were withdrawn from the country. In 1945, Syria had become a charter member of the United Nations.
A member of the Arab League, Syria joined other Arab states in the unsuccessful war (1948–49) against Israel (see Arab-Israeli Wars). The defeat at the hands of Israel, coupled with serious internal divisions resulting from disagreements over whether to unite with Iraq (and thus form a “Greater Syria”), undermined confidence in parliamentary government and led to three coups in 1949. Lt. Col. Adib al-Shishakli led the third coup (Dec., 1949), and he governed the country until 1954. A new constitution providing for parliamentary government was promulgated in 1950, but it was suspended in late 1951. From then until 1954, al-Shishakli ruled as a virtual dictator. In 1953 he issued a new constitution establishing a presidential form of government and was elected president.
Opposition to al-Shishakli's one-man rule led to his downfall in 1954 and the reinstitution of the 1950 constitution. After elections in late 1954 a coalition government uniting the People's, National, and Ba'ath parties and headed by Sabri al-Asali of the National party was established; Shukri al-Kuwatli was again elected president. In the following years the Ba'ath party, which combined Arab nationalism with a socialist program, emerged as the most influential political party in Syria. At the same time, in order to offset growing Western influence in the Middle East (exemplified by the creation in 1955 of the Baghdad Pact alliance, later known as the Central Treaty Organization), both Syria and Egypt signed economic and military accords with the USSR.
To counterbalance Soviet influence, Syria joined with Egypt to form (Feb., 1958) the United Arab Republic (UAR). By late 1959, Egypt had become dominant in the UAR, which led to growing Syrian opposition to continued union with Egypt. In Sept., 1961, a group of Syrian army officers seized control of Syria, withdrew the country from the UAR, and established the Syrian Arab Republic. Elections for a constituent assembly were held in late 1961; the assembly chose Maruf al-Dawalibi as prime minister and Nazim al-Qudsi as president of the country; both were conservatives and members of the People's party. In early 1962 a military coup ended this arrangement, and in late 1962 the 1950 constitution was reinstated.
In 1963 another coup brought a joint Ba'ath-military government to power; this regime was headed, at different times, by Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a moderate leader of the Ba'ath party, and by Gen. Amin al-Hafiz. The government nationalized much of the economy and redistributed land to the peasants. At the same time a split between moderate and radical elements in the Ba'ath party was growing. In early 1966 the radicals staged a successful coup and installed Yusseff Zayen as prime minister and Nureddin al-Attassi as president. The new government strengthened Syria's ties with Egypt and the USSR.
Between 1962 and 1966, Syria agitated Israeli interests by attempting to divert headwaters of the Jordan River, by firing on Israeli fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, and by using the Golan Heights to snipe at Israeli settlements. These conflicts contributed to the Arab-Israeli War of June, 1967. During the war Israel captured the Golan Heights (stretching about 12 mi/19 km into Syria northeast of the Sea of Galilee), and it held on to this territory after a cease-fire went into effect. After the war Syria maintained its anti-Israel stance. In 1968–69 the Ba'ath party was again torn by factional strife, and it divided into the “progressives” (led by al-Attassi), who favored state control of the economy and close cooperation with the USSR, and the “nationalists” (headed by Gen. Hafez al-Assad), who emphasized the need to defeat Israel, to improve relations with other Arab states, and to lessen Syria's economic and military dependence on the USSR.
The Assad Regime
Al-Assad successfully ousted al-Attassi in Nov., 1970. In early 1971, al-Assad was overwhelmingly elected to a seven-year term as president; he was reelected three times. Later in 1971, Syria, Libya, and Egypt agreed to unite loosely in the Federation of Arab Republics. Syria continued to be on good terms with the USSR, which equipped the Syrian army with modern weapons. In early 1973 a new constitution was approved, and the Ba'ath party won 70% of the seats in elections for the people's council. In July–Aug., 1973, about 42 army officers (all Sunni Muslims) were executed after allegedly plotting to assassinate al-Assad, who, they claimed, showed undue favoritism to his fellow Alawite Muslims in the army. (Al-Assad did indeed favor the Alawites in the army and government.)
In Oct., 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli War erupted; after initial Syrian advances in the Golan Heights, Israel gained the offensive and pushed into Syria a few miles beyond the Golan Heights region. Syria (like Israel) accepted the UN Security Council cease-fire resolution of Oct. 25, 1973, but fighting continued into 1974. In May, 1974, largely through the mediation of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Syria and Israel signed an agreement in Geneva that ended the fighting. Under the terms of the accord, Israel pulled back to the 1967 cease-fire line and also returned the city of Qunaytirah (Kuneitra) to Syria; a buffer zone, patrolled by UN troops, was established in the Golan Heights.
Since the 1970s the rise of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism has challenged Ba'athist ideology. Between 1976 and 1982, urban centers erupted in political unrest. The Muslim Brotherhood, a radical religious and political organization founded in 1928 in Egypt, was largely responsible for extremist attacks. In Feb., 1982, the brotherhood unsuccessfully attempted an uprising in Hama but was quashed by government troops; thousands were killed. Islamic fundamentalists, however, continue to remain active.
In 1976, Syria sent forces to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force to help end that country's civil war. The Syrian military remained in Lebanon, and from 1980 to 1981, Syrian troops sided with Lebanese Muslims against the Christian militias. With Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982, Syrian troops clashed with Israeli forces and were pushed back. Syria was also antagonized by Israel in 1982, when Menachem Begin announced the annexation of the Golan Heights. By the late 1990s, more than 40 Jewish settlements and villages had been developed in the Golan Heights. Although Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985, Syrian forces stayed; they remained the dominant military and political force there into 2005.
The Syrian government has been implicated in sponsoring international terrorism, especially in support of Iranian, Palestinian, and Libyan causes. In the 1980s, Syria moved closer to the USSR and espoused hard-line Arab positions. By 1990, however, as the Soviet system faltered, Syria attempted to improve relations with Western countries. That year Syria was the first Arab country to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and it contributed 20,000 soldiers to the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War (1991).
Syria, along with Lebanon and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, became involved in peace talks with Israel in late 1991. As talks progressed between Israel and the PLO and Jordan, Syria's insistence that Israel withdraw from all of the Golan Heights proved a stumbling block in its own negotiations. Talks broke off in 1996, but the Syrian government appeared interested in renewing negotiations following the installation of a Labor government in Israel in 1999. Talks were resumed in Dec., 1999. After what appeared to be initial progress, discussions stalled in Jan., 2000, when a secret draft treaty with Syrian concessions was published in Israel, leading to a public hardening of Syria's position with respect to the Golan.
In June, 2000, Assad died suddenly. His son, Bashar al-Assad, a 34-year-old doctor who had been groomed to succeed his father since 1994, rapidly became commander in chief of the army, head of the Ba'ath party, and then president. The son was regarded as an advocate of a free-market economy and political change, but movement toward both has proceeded slowly and has at times been reversed or hindered. Syria strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and was accused by U.S. government officials of supplying aid to Iraq and helping Iraqi officials to escape from U.S. forces. The United States later also accused Syria of permitting militants to infilitrate into Iraq. A new cabinet with a mandate to push reforms forward was appointed in Sept., 2003, but subsequently there was little noticeable political or economic reform.
In Oct., 2003, Israel struck at what it called a terrorist training base in Syria in retaliation for suicide-bombing attacks in Israel; it was the first Israeli strike against Syrian territory in 20 years. Simmering grievances among the nation's Kurds erupted into rare antigovernment protests in NE Syria in Mar., 2004.
In Aug. and Sept., 2004, Syria blatantly forced Lebanon to extend President Lahoud's term, an act that was denounced by the UN Security Council. The Feb., 2005, assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who had opposed Syrian interference in Lebanon, led to anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon and increased international pressure on Syria. Syria subsequently agreed to withdraw from Lebanon, and by the end of Apr., 2005, the withdrawal was completed.
A UN investigation into Hariri's killing implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese officials, but Syria refused to allow UN investigators to interview high-ranking Syrian officials, leading the Security Council to call unanimously for Syria to cooperate. Syria, however, vigorously rejected the vote and attempted to discredit the investigation, publicizing the recanting of one witness. However, a former Syrian vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, stated (Dec., 2005) that Syria had threatened Hariri and asserted that the assassination could not have happened without the support of high-ranking Syrian officials. (Khaddam, residing in Paris, also called for Assad to be removed from office.) Resistance to moving forward with the investigation from Syria's allies in Lebanon (most notably President Emile Lahoud and Hezbollah) blocked the Lebanese government from establishing an investigative tribunal and stalled any additional progress into 2007. In May, 2007, Assad was reelected by referendum (he was the only candidate).
The official site of the Ministry of Tourism of Syria (the Syrian Arab republic).
Leaders of Syria
Country profile: Syria
Once the centre of the Islamic Empire, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks.
A chronology of key events:
1918 1 October - Arab troops led by Emir Faysal, and supported by British forces, capture Damascus, ending 400 years of Ottoman rule.
1919 - Emir Faysal backs Arab self-rule at the Versailles peace conference, following the defeat of Germany and the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
1919 June - Elections for a Syrian National Congress are held. The new assembly includes delegates from Palestine.
1920 8 March - The National Congress proclaims Emir Faysal king of Syria "in its natural boundaries" from the Taurus mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt.
1920 June - San Remo conference splits up Faysal's newly-created Arab kingdom by placing Syria-Lebanon under a French mandate, and Palestine under British control.
1920 July - French forces occupy Damascus, forcing Faysal to flee abroad.
1920 August - France proclaims a new state of Greater Lebanon.
1922 - Syria is divided into three autonomous regions by the French, with separate areas for the Alawis on the coast and the Druze in the south.
1925-6 - Nationalist agitation against French rule develops into a national uprising. French forces bombard Damascus.
1928 - Elections held for a constituent assembly, which drafts a constitution for Syria. French High Commissioner rejects the proposals, sparking nationalist protests.
1936 - France agrees to Syrian independence in principle but signs an agreement maintaining French military and economic dominance.
1940 - World War II: Syria comes under the control of the Axis powers after France falls to German forces.
1941 - British and Free French troops occupy Syria. General De Gaulle promises to end the French mandate.
1945 - Protests over the slow pace of French withdrawal.
1946 - Last French troops leave Syria.
Baath Party founded
1947 - Michel Aflaq and Salah-al-Din al-Bitar found the Arab
1949 - Army officer Adib al-Shishakhli seizes power in the third military coup in the space of a year.
1952 - Al-Shishakli dissolves all political parties.
1954 - Army officers lead a coup against Al-Shishakli, but return a civilian government to power.
1955 - Veteran nationalist Shukri al-Quwatli is elected president. Syria seeks closer ties with Egypt.
United Arab Republic
1958 27 February - Syria and Egypt join the United Arab Republic (UAR). Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser heads the new state. He orders the dissolution of Syrian political parties, to the dismay of the Baath party, which had campaigned for union.
1961 28 September - Discontent with Egyptian domination of the UAR prompts a group of Syrian army officers to seize power in Damascus and dissolve the union.
1963 8 March - Army officers seize power. A Baathist cabinet is appointed and Amin al-Hafez becomes president.
Rise of Assad
1966 February - Salah Jadid leads an internal coup against the civilian Baath leadership, overthrowing Amin al-Hafez and arresting Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Michel Aflaq. Hafez al-Assad becomes defence minister.
1967 June - Israeli forces seize the Golan Heights from Syria and destroy much of Syria's air force.
1970 November - Hafez al-Assad overthrows president Nur al-Din al-Atasi and imprisons Salah Jadid.
1971 March - Assad is elected president for a seven-year term in a plebiscite.
1973 - Rioting breaks out after Assad drops the constitutional requirement that the president must be a Muslim. He is accused of heading an atheist regime. The riots are suppressed by the army.
War with Israel
1973 6 October - Syria and Egypt go to war with Israel but fail to retake the Golan Heights seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
1974 May - Syria and Israel sign a disengagement agreement.
1975 February - Assad says he's prepared to make peace with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land.
1976 June - Syrian army intervenes in the Lebanese civil war to ensure that the status quo is maintained, and the Maronites remain in power.
1978 - In response to the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, Assad sets out to gain strategic parity with Israel.
1980 - After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Muslim groups instigate uprisings and riots in Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Assad begins to stress Syria's adherence to Islam.
1980 - Muslim Brotherhood member tries to assassinate Assad.
1980 September - Start of Iran-Iraq war. Syria backs Iran, in keeping with the traditional rivalry between Baathist leaderships in Iraq and Syria.
1981 December - Israel annexes the Golan Heights.
Uprising in Hama
1982 February - Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama. The revolt is suppressed by the military.
1982 June - Israel invades Lebanon and attacks the Syrian army, forcing it to withdraw from several areas. Israel attacks the PLO base in Beirut.
1983 May - Lebanon and Israel announce the end of hostilities. Syrian forces remain in Lebanon.
1983 July - Mufti of Jerusalem issues a fatwa calling for Assad to be killed because of his hostile treatment of the PLO.
1983 - Assad suffers a heart attack, according to reports denied by authorities. Assad's brother Rifaat apparently prepares to take power.
1984 Rifaat is promoted to the post of vice-president.
Return to Lebanon
1987 February - Assad sends troops into Lebanon for a second time to enforce a ceasefire in Beirut.
1990 - Iraq invades Kuwait; Syria joins the US-led coalition against Iraq. This leads to improved relations with Egypt and the US.
1991 October - Syria participates in the Middle East peace conference in Madrid and holds talks with Israel.
1994 - Assad's son Basil, who was likely to succeed his father, is killed in a car accident.
1998 - Assad's brother Rifaat is "relieved of his post" as vice-president.
1999 December - Talks with Israel over the Golan Heights begin in the US.
2000 January - Syrian-Israeli talks are indefinitely postponed.
2000 June - Assad dies and is succeeded by his son, Bashar.
2000 November - Bashar orders the release of 600 political prisoners.
2001 April - Outlawed Muslim Brotherhood says it will resume political activity, 20 years after its leaders were forced to flee.
2001 5 May - Pope John Paul II pays historic visit.
2001 June - Syrian troops evacuate Beirut, redeploy in other parts of Lebanon, following pressure from Lebanese critics of Syria's presence.
2001 September - Detention of MPs and other pro-reform activists, crushing hopes of a break with the authoritarian past of Hafez al-Assad.
2001 November - British PM Tony Blair visits to try shore up support for the campaign against terror. He and President Assad fail to agree on a definition of terrorism.
2001 November - More than 100 dissidents amnestied. Campaigners say hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail.
Tensions with US
2002 May - Senior US official includes Syria in a list of states that make-up an "axis of evil", first listed by President Bush in January. Undersecretary for State John Bolton says Damascus is acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
2003 April - US threatens sanctions if Damascus fails to take what Washington calls the right decisions. Syria denies US allegations that it is developing chemical weapons and helping fugitive Iraqis.
2003 September - President Assad appoints Mohammed Naji al-Otari as PM.
2003 October - Israeli air strike against alleged Palestinian militant camp near Damascus. Syria says action is "military aggression".
2004 January - President Assad visits Turkey, the first Syrian leader to do so. The trip marks the end of decades of frosty relations.
2004 March - At least 25 killed in clashes between members of the Kurdish minority, police and Arabs in the north-east.
2004 May - US imposes economic sanctions on Syria over what it calls its support for terrorism and failure to stop militants entering Iraq.
2004 September - UN Security Council resolution calls for all foreign forces to leave Lebanon.
2004 December - Authorities say they have amnestied 112 political prisoners.
Pressure over Lebanon
2005 February-March - Tensions with the US escalate after the killing of former Lebanese PM Hariri in Beirut. Washington cites Syrian influence in Lebanon. Damascus is urged to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
2005 April - Syria says it has withdrawn all of its military forces from Lebanon.
2005 October - Interior minister and Syria's former head of intelligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, commits suicide, officials say.
UN inquiry into assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri implicates senior Syrian officials.
2005 December - Exiled former vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, alleges that Syrian leaders threatened former Lebanese PM Hariri before his assassination.
2006 February - Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus are set on fire during a demonstration against cartoons in a Danish newspaper satirising the Prophet Muhammad.
2006 July - Thousands of people flee into Syria to escape Israel's bombardment of Lebanon.
2006 September - Attack on the US embassy in Damascus. Four gunmen open fire and throw grenades but fail to detonate a car bomb. Three of them are killed, one is captured.
2006 November - Iraq and Syria restore diplomatic relations after nearly a quarter century.
2006 December - Aid agencies say they are struggling to cope with the growing numbers of Iraqis fleeing into Syria to escape the violence.
2006 December - The Iraq Study Group report making recommendations to the US government says neighbours should form a support group to reinforce security and national reconciliation in Iraq. Syria welcomes the chance to participate.
2007 March - European Union reopens dialogue with Syria.
2007 April - US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets President Assad in Damascus. She is the highest-placed US politician to visit Syria in recent years.
2007 April - Parliamentary elections.
2007 May - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, the first contact at this level between the two countries in two years.
2007 May - Leading dissident Kamal Labwani and prominent political writer Michel Kilo are sentenced to a long jail terms, only weeks after human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni is jailed.
Al-Assad endorsed as president for a second seven-year term.
Dr Bashar al-Assad (Arabic: بشار الأسد, Baššār al-Asad) (born 11 September 1965) is the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, Regional Secretary of the Baath Party, and the son of former President Hafez al-Assad.
Bashar Al-Assad is the President of the Syrian Arab Republic and head of the Syrian Ba'ath Party.
Born September 11, 1965, the second son of Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad had not planned on being involved in politics. He studied ophthalmology at the Tishrin military hospital in Damascus, and then went on to London for further studies as an eye doctor. Bashar Al-Assad's life was changed in 1994 when his older brother, Basil, who was being groomed for the highest office, was killed in a car crash. Because the army plays a key role in Syrian politics -- his father headed both the Army and the Air Force -- Bashar entered the military academy at Homs, north of Damascus, and rose through the ranks to become a colonel in January, 1999. Known to be an Internet buff, Bashar went on to lead a Syrian scientific society for information technology. When he became president, it was hoped that Bashar would lean more towards Western political policies, and would be a slightly more liberal leader for Syria. In fact, he has stuck very close to the political lines of his autocratic late father.
Syrian President speaks about democracy in Syria
Syrian President Says He Can Help Broker Peace
ABC News' Diane Sawyer Talks Exclusively to President Bashar al-Assad About Iraq and Mideast Peace
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a 41-year-old doctor, is the son of the legendary Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who negotiated with five American presidents.
Many in diplomatic circles believe that this quiet man may be the best hope for the United States to broker peace with insurgents in the Middle East.
In a significant moment, Assad told ABC News' Diane Sawyer that he was ready to talk to the United States, but that it must be in public -- and that because the situation was so dire, the time to talk was now.
So far, the administration has refused to engage in talks with Syria.
Below is the transcript of Sawyer's exclusive interview with Assad.
Watch "Good Morning America" Tuesday for more of Diane Sawyer's report from Syria.
Sawyer: Your excellency, thank you so much for letting us come.
Assad: You're most welcome Miss Sawyer here.
Sawyer: There are a chorus of voices in the United States saying that talking to Syria is the way to end the war in Iraq. Can you stop the violence in Iraq?
Assad: First of all, the problem in Iraq is political, and talking to Syria as a concept means talking to all the other parties inside Iraq and outside Iraq. We're not the only player. We're not the single player, but we are the main player in this issue, and our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with the support from the other parties like the Americans and the other neighboring countries and any other country in the world. So that's how we can stop the violence.
Sawyer: Are you waiting to hear from the Americans? Why not begin it now?
Assad: We are hearing, but we don't expect that much. We don't expect that they're going to. After nearly four years of occupation they haven't learned their lesson, they haven't stopped the dialogue. I think it's too late for them to move toward that.
Sawyer: Too late?
Assad: That does not mean we cannot turn the tide, but it's too late because Iraq is heading toward the chaos for civil war. So maybe this is the last chance that we have now to start helping Iraq.
'What's the Benefit of Democracy When You're Dead?'
Sawyer: The Americans, of course, would say that they are not the occupying force, that they are in fact a force trying to regain security so that American forces can go home.
Assad: Militarily, yes. But politically, no, because they are responsible for the political situation and they haven't embarked any policy inside Iraq here. They only talk about sending more troops or less troops. They only talk about troops and power, not about political process.
Sawyer: Because Americans would say they voted, they now have the beginning of democracy there.
Assad: What's the benefit of democracy if you're dead? Now after the war, more than 700,000 Iraqis were killed. So is it democracy for killing or for having better standard of life? For starvation? For insecurity? For all this? So democracy is a tool to have a better life.
Sawyer: What would happen? Then talks take place.
Sawyer: You, Iran, the neighboring countries?
Sawyer: So the influence of the neighboring countries can create a cease-fire?
Assad: Yes, this is something mainly that they don't understand. It doesn't matter how strong economically or what army you have, it's a matter of credibility. We have credibility. We have good relations with the other factions. They should trust you to be able to play a role.
We have this good relations with all the parties, including the parties participating in this government and the other who oppose this political process. So that's how we can help. As Syria. Maybe other countries as well.
Sawyer: You are reported to have said, when American congressmen came here before the war in Iraq, "You will ultimately lose." … That you said, "You will win the war but you will sink in a swamp."
Assad: Exactly. That's what I said -- many times to many Americans and to the British officials: There is no doubt you are going to win the war, but after the war, you are going to be sinking in the mud, and nobody can help you. You are going to help us people to extract us from the quagmire, but it's going to be very difficult. And events proved that what we said in Syria was right.
Sawyer: On the current course, what do you think will going to happen next in Iraq?
Assad: Next? Whether it's a budding civil war or a full-blown civil war, it doesn't matter what the definition. It's like domino effect, it's going to affect the whole Middle East in general, and this means it's going to affect the rest of the world.
Sawyer: One of the things that Americans have been told is that Syria wants to fuel the fire and then put the fire out at the same time. And we are told that one of the reasons that there are violent insurgents in Iraq is that they're able to come through 376-mile border and that you give permission for terrorists to come down through the border into Iraq.
Assad: First of all, they have to stop looking for scapegoats and whipping boys, this administration. And there's a logical answer: We cannot stoke the fire and then extinguish it. If you stoke it, it will burn you. So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria and to other countries, so saying this, like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest, this is impossible.
We have a guard, a special border guard, since 1975, and we supported this guard recently to make more control. But this is not enough. You need Iraqi or American partner on the other side.
Sawyer: But in America they believe that you are all powerful, and you say the word and the border will stop.
Assad: Powerful is different from being omnipotent -- power that you can control everything completely. You cannot control your border with Mexico, can you? You're the greatest power in the world, you cannot control it with Mexico, so how do you want Syria to control its border with Iraq?
'Administration. … Not Interested in Peace at All'
Sawyer: Did you watch the execution of Saddam Hussein?
Assad: Yeah. … I watched it. And, uh, you want to know my opinion? Actually, I can not give you personal opinion, because now I'm speaking formally and I have to be of the opinion of the government. We didn't take any stand against it, but he's a war prisoner. How could the Americans hand him over to another authority, which is not independent? So how could the trial be or called or described as fair and independent? This is a legal point of view.
Sawyer: Some have written in America that rulers in this part of the world look at Saddam Hussein and say, "That could be me, I'm next."
Assad: Because there's no rules, and there's no law and there's no independence, anybody could be next -- not only by the execution, but by killing in general. When you talk about next, every day in Iraq you have dead people, you have explosions, you have killing. So it's going on anyway, so anybody could think that he's next whether by execution or whether it's by assassination or by suicide bombers.
Sawyer: After Sept. 11, Syria was very helpful to the United States, we are told, in supplying intelligence about terrorism in the world. Do you know now where Osama bin Laden is? Is he alive?
Assad: We don't know. If you don't know, how could we know? You have all this intelligence so we're.
Sawyer: Are you ready to resume terrorism information to the United States?
Assad: We used to think that it's like the Internet, it doesn't have borders. It hits anywhere. So what hits in the West or the East, someday will hit in the Middle East. So we have to, and we are willing to cooperate with the rest of the world regarding terrorism.
Sawyer: When I was here before and I interviewed your father and I asked him about then-President [George H.W.] Bush. And he said to me, "President Bush is a man who feels he wishes to achieve peace and is seriously attempting to bring that wish to life."
Sawyer: Describe the current President Bush to me in your view.
Assad: I'd rather give objective view. … I've never met him personally to describe him, but what I know about this issue that this administration, in general, are not interested in peace at all. This administration is not willing to achieve peace. They don't have the will, and they don't have the vision. This is, in brief, what I know about this administration not about the president in particular.
Sawyer: Who do you admire the most in the world?
Assad: That's a very difficult question. The prophets, all the prophets. The three prophets -- Moses, Jesus and, of course, Muhammad.
Sawyer: And is there anyone operating on the world stage today that you admire? Any leader, any diplomat?
Assad: Maybe Bush, the father, because of his will to achieve the peace in the region. Of course, President Clinton, he has the same will, and he is admired in our region and respected.
Sawyer: And, Mrs. Clinton?
Assad: I've never met her. I don't know a lot about her.
Sawyer: So you're not endorsing her for president?
Assad: We'll see if she becomes president. … We'll see what her polices are.
Syrian president speaks about Iraq on NBC
Syria and Iran: Keys to Iraq Peace?
Leaders Mull Solutions to War in Iraq
Despite past disagreements with Syria and Iran, if a bipartisan commission recommends talks with them to improve the situation in Iraq, the Bush administration will be open to the suggestion, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten told ABC News' "This Week."
Bolten's comments come as President Bush is slated to meet Monday with the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker. The panel is supposed to advise the president on new strategies in Iraq.
And they also come as Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, America's ally in Iraq, is expected to recommend talks are needed with Syria and Iran to help stem the violence in Iraq. Blairs comments are expected as part of a foreign policy address Monday evening at the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet to be held at Guildhall in central London.
Baker recently indicated on "This Week" that he thought negotiating with Syria and Iran could be a strategy for improving the situation in Iraq. The commission will reportedly recommend such a solution.
"Iran and Syria have been meddling in Iraq in a very unhelpful way," Bolten told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos today. "Iranian weapons and technology have found their way into the Iraqi conflict and are being used to kill Iraqis and American soldiers. … That needs to stop.
"That said," he added, "we'll be open to what the Baker/Hamilton commission has to recommend, and we'll be trying to treat that in as open and bipartisan a way as possible."
After meeting with the president and other top administration officials Monday, the study group plans to brief Democrats on Tuesday. The group's members hope to release their final report within weeks.
Analysts Weigh In
Experts say there are no easy answers to America's troubles in Iraq.
"There's no silver bullet here," said retired U.S. Gen. Jack Keane, an ABC News military analyst. "So I think their plan will reflect a political strategy, a military strategy, an economic one and a very strong diplomatic one."
Keane is one of more than 150 experts the study group has interviewed, and he recommends that 40,000 additional U.S. troops be sent to secure Baghdad.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and co-author of "Hard Power," told ABC News that President Bush will probably attempt several approaches -- including involving Iran and Syria -- over one radical move to improve the situation in Iraq.
"A big radical change … to move millions of people around so they're not living amidst places where they're vulnerable … that kind of radical idea is not yet on the table, if it ever will be," O'Hanlon said.
"I think they'll try with a number of pragmatic approaches," O'Hanlon added. "Those are the kind of ideas they may be proposing -- a lot of second-level ideas that hopefully all together add up to something notable."
Despite exit poll figures indicating that a majority of American voters would support withdrawal of troops from Iraq, O'Hanlon said that may not be possible for Bush.
"I think that's essentially an admission of defeat, if you make that your top priority and you do it too quickly," he said.
Instead, he suggested that the president use the results of the election to set a deadline for the Iraqis to find compromise.
"I think the realistic goal here is for President Bush to say to the Iraqis, 'Listen: Look at my country's election results. My American people are losing patience with this war,'" O'Hanlon said. "You've got one good year at your last chance to make compromises across the Sunni-Shia divide.
"Try to use our partisan division, in a sense, to create a form of a credible ultimatum to the Iraqis," he added. "That's about the only way in which you could do it in a constructive way."
Although both Baker and the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have close ties to the first Bush administration, O'Hanlon said he didn't necessarily see a trend.
"The previous Bush administration is the place where a lot of Republicans got their experience," he said. "Bob Gates and Jim Baker are two of the very smartest people from that administration. They're outstanding public servants. So in terms of having the right people advising the president, at least we have that much going for us.
"Unfortunately," O'Hanlon added, "the situation in Iraq, as we all know, is a mess."
Success Is Critical
The administration is determined to fix the problems in Iraq because the country is "critical to our national security," Bolten told Stephanopoulos.
"We need to have the public support for this effort here, but above all we need to succeed," he said. "The objective is victory in Iraq. It's absolutely critical to this country that we win this fight in the central front in the war on terror.
"Now, that doesn't mean we're not going to be adjusting tactics, listening to fresh ideas," Bolten said. "What's changed is we now have Democratic control in the Congress, and we're going to be talking even more closely than we have been in the past with the leadership there about the right way forward."
Bolten said he hoped the Baker commission would yield strategies that would bring support from both politicians and the public.
"The Baker/Hamilton commission can be very important, I hope, in helping build some bipartisan and public consensus about the way forward," he said. "Because public support is very important in this situation, where it's a very difficult situation, where we have brave young men and women putting their lives on the line."
Democrats' Strategy: Change the Course
The first thing Democrats will try to accomplish in the new term of Congress is a change in the direction of Iraq policy, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told ABC News.
"The first order of business, I believe, is to join, hopefully, with some Republicans, who I think now will emerge to press the administration to change course in Iraq by telling the Iraqis that our presence there is not open-ended," Levin said, "and that, as a matter of fact, we need to begin a phased redeployment of forces from Iraq in four to six months, to begin that redeployment."
Despite the failure of Levin's resolution six months ago that called for the beginning of troop withdrawal, he believes similar legislation could pass in the new term.
"The people have spoken in a very, very strong way that they don't buy the administration position that we are, quote, absolutely winning," Levin said. "They don't buy it. They rejected it.
"Now we have a more Democratic Congress," he added, "which I believe is willing to implement the people's will and to put some pressure on this president to change course in Iraq."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Ohio, agreed.
"The second part of the resolution … [called] for a political settlement in Iraq, put pressure on the Iraqis to insist upon a means to distribute the oil equitably, to make sure that there's some form of federalism and to deal with the militias, and call for an international conference," Biden said.
Although the president could still veto the legislation if it passed in the House and Senate, Biden said he believed that pressure from both Republicans and the public would be enough to sway Bush.
"The only leverage we really have is international and domestic public opinion, and, most importantly, the pressure coming from his own Republican colleagues," Biden said. "The last thing the senators who are up for reelection in 2008 want is to be saddled with a continued failure in Iraq as a consequence of Republican policy.
"I have spoken to major figures in the Republican Party in the area of foreign policy," Biden added. "They are ready to join in some form of what we just talked about."
"The Baker commission is out there, as well," Biden said. "That will put pressure. I hope the Baker commission doesn't kick the can down the road and actually makes some strong recommendations, but there's a lot of pieces moving out there."
Bolten, however, told ABC News he was unsure if the president would sign on to such legislation.
"It's hard for me to see how that can be done on a fixed timetable. It's got to be done based on the conditions on the ground," Bolten said. "The important thing is that this be done in a way that the Iraqis can succeed, that we can have a democratic government there that can govern itself, sustain itself, defend itself and be an ally in the war on terror."
President Bush is willing to talk about any ideas, Bolten said, but putting a lot of pressure on the Iraqis is probably not the best solution.
"I don't think we need a lot more pressure on the Iraqis to help them do what they need to do -- but sure, we're all saying that the Iraqis need to step up and they need to get their own situation under control," he said. "It's a sovereign government. We need to treat them as a sovereign government."
Why Did Israeli Planes Enter Syria?
A mysterious incident involving Israeli jets over northern Syria last week has revived fears of war between Israel and Syria, just as months of tension between the bitter foes had appeared to be subsiding. The Israeli government is maintaining a rigid — and uncharacteristic —silence over the affair, which has drawn threats of retaliation from Damascus and a vow to take the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Speculation is rife, but facts elusive, over why Israeli warplanes were over above the arid plains of northern Syria early Thursday. Syria's official news agency last week quoted a Syrian military official saying that Israeli jets had entered Syrian airspace from the Mediterranean, and broke the sound barrier before coming under fire from air defenses. The Israelis, according to this account, had "dropped munitions" over deserted areas before departing. The report did not specify whether the Israelis had bombed any targets. The following day, fuel tanks were discovered inside Turkey near the Syrian border. Other jettisoned tanks were reportedly found inside Syria.
"They dropped bombs over Syria and they dropped fuel tanks on Syrian soil," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in Ankara Monday, while briefing Turkish officials on the incident. Turkey, which has strong military and diplomatic ties to Israel, described the overflights as "unacceptable," and has demanded an explanation from the Israeli government.
The Syrians are suggesting that Israel had, albeit discreetly, moved preemptively to reassure Damascus of its intentions before the incident. Muallem told European ambassadors in Damascus at the weekend that last Wednesday — the day before the incursion — he had received a "calming message" from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, sent via a top EU official, according to the Arabic Al-Hayat newspaper. Israeli officials have lately sought to defuse tensions by making clear Israel has no plan to attack Syria and reducing troop numbers near the border. But Muallem told the diplomats that Olmert's message was a "preparation for the penetration of planes into Syrian skies, just hours later," Al-Hayat reported. Israeli aircraft routinely breach Lebanese airspace, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, mainly to monitor the activities of Hizballah, and on rare occasions, usually connected to tensions in Lebanon or the Palestinian territories, they have also entered Syrian skies.
But northern Syria is a long way from the traditional Arab-Israeli front line, suggesting that the mission was of sufficient importance to endanger air crews and risk a serious escalation of tensions with Damascus. Mohammed Raad, a senior Hizballah official, suggested that the overflight was an attempt to "identify an aggressive aerial passage" for an air strike against Iran. Analysts long have pondered the potential flight routes Israeli bombers would take in the event of a decision to target Iran's nuclear sites. Given the limitations of aircraft range, one option would be to fly directly across Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia and through U.S.-patrolled Iraqi skies. Neither the Saudis or the Jordanians would shed tears if Iran's nuclear capability were destroyed in an air strike, but they could not afford to be seen as having granted the Israelis safe passage though their skies.
An alternative would be to follow the Turkish-Syrian border eastward to Iraqi Kurdistan, and then on to Iran. According to John Pike of globalsecurity.org, the many technical and political factors in play make it difficult to predict which route the Israelis might choose. "At this level of technical detail, one starts to get thinking about what sort of weapons would be carried, and what sort of drag this imposes and how that affects combat range," Pike told TIME.
Even if it were not related to a bombing route, the purpose of Israel's unusual air mission last week may yet be related to Iran. In August, Syria reportedly received from Russia the first batch of 50 Pantsyr S1E short-range air defense systems, part of an alleged sale worth almost $1 billion. The deal is said to have been financed by Iran, which reportedly will receive from Syria some of the Pantsyr units and deploy them to protect its nuclear facilities. The recently developed Pantsyr, which its Russian manufacturers claim is immune to jamming, includes surface-to-air missiles and 30mm Gatling guns, providing complete defensive coverage for a range of 11 to 12 miles and 6 miles in altitude. Pantsyr batteries could pose a serious challenge to either an Israeli or a U.S. air strike on Iran. So were the Israeli aircraft playing a perilous game of chicken to assess the capabilities of the Pantsyr system in response to their countermeasures? Some in Syria believe so.
"There seems to be a consensus here that the Israelis were testing Syrian air defense systems," Andrew Tabler, Damascus-based editor of Syria Today, told TIME.
Whatever their purpose, the overflights appear to have dashed hopes of cooling Israeli-Syrian tensions. Having absorbed the lessons of Israel's failure to crush Hizballah during last summer's month-long war, Syria has been building up its military capabilities in recent months, purchasing advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Veteran Hizballah instructors have been helping train crack Syrian commando units in guerrilla warfare, according to Lebanese intelligence sources. Syria's growing military confidence has been further bolstered by defense agreements with Iran. Some Israelis worry that Syria, sidelined by the U.S. and Washington's Arab allies in regional peacemaking efforts, could launch a lightning strike against Israel in order to push to the top of the diplomatic agenda its ongoing quest to recover territory captured by Israel in 1967.
Hizballah, meanwhile, has spent the past year frenetically restocking its war-depleted arsenal, preparing new lines of defense and recruiting and training hundreds of eager volunteers in anticipation of a second round with Israel. Commentators in Lebanon and Syria believe that Israel's need to restore its battered military deterrence has heightened the prospect of an attack on Syria. Writing in Monday's Syrian state-run Tishreen newspaper, Ezzieddine Darwish said that the Israeli government is seeking to provoke a war with Syria to "wash away the shame of Israel's defeat in Lebanon". Indeed, many Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis are no longer asking if a war will happen, only when and how.
Israel Thwarted Syria's Plan To Attack
Israel conducted air strike inside Syria: US official
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Israel carried out an air strike well inside Syria last week, apparently to send Damascus a message not to rearm Hezbollah in Lebanon, a US defense official said Tuesday.
"It wasn't big. It was a quick strike. They were engaged by the Syrians, they dropped their ordenance and scooted out of there," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official did not know the target of the strike, which was conducted Thursday, but said the US military believed it was to send a message to the Syrians.
"The Israelis are trying to tell the Syrians: 'Don't support a resurgence of Hezbollah in Lebanon.'"
Israel fought a devastating 34-day war in July and August 2006 against Hezbollah, whose missile firepower and use of sophisticated weaponry surprised the Israelis.
CNN, which earlier reported on the strike, said the strike was believed to have targeted weapons either coming into Syria or moving through Syria from Iran to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Syria said its air defenses had opened fire on Israeli warplanes flying over the northeast of the country in the early hours of Thursday and warned it was weighing its response to the Israeli "aggression."
But Israeli officials have made no comment on the allegations, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "specifically instructed ministers not to talk about the incident related to Syria at all," one senior Israeli government official said.
Turkey said on Monday that two detachable air fuel tanks were found near its border with Syria in the southeastern provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep, and demanded an explanation from Israel.
Turkish newspapers said the fuel tanks were from F-15 fighters of a kind that Israel flies.
It was not known whether Israel's US allies were told about the air strike before it took place.
The US military looked into it after receiving a report the air strike, the US defense official said.
"It was pretty much determined they did conduct an operation of some kind," the official said. "It was an air strike."
The incident comes amid heightened Israeli-Syrian tensions with leaders in both countries saying they do not want conflict while accusing the other of arming for one.
Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said Saturday in Portugal both sides were looking for ways to ratchet down the tension.
"I think that everybody wants to calm down the situation, to cool it off. Nobody wants to keep the temperature high," he told AFP.
Syria protests to U.N. on reported Israeli air strike
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Syria protested to the United Nations about Israel's reported air strike against its territory, accusing the Jewish state of aggression and "flagrant violation" of its airspace, according to a letter circulated on Tuesday.
Syria on Thursday accused Israel of the bombing and said it was able to respond to the Jewish state's "aggression and treachery." Israel has declined to comment on the charge.
In the letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Security Council members, Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said Israeli aircraft, as they departed, "dropped some munitions but without managing to cause any human casualties or material damage."
The ambassador did not ask for any specific action but said he was drawing attention to "this flagrant violation by Israel of its airspace and to its aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic."
Ja'afari said that "if the international community persists in disregarding these Israeli actions (it) is likely to subject the region and international peace and security to serious consequences that may be difficult to control."
He said Israel had repeatedly disregarded its obligations under a disengagement agreement with Syria as well as international law.
At the time of the incident, one Syrian official said troops "fired heavily" at Israeli planes, although the Syrian state news agency spoke only of air defenses "confronting" them -- a phrase that several analysts said could mean simply locking on radar rather than opening fire.
Israeli officials, speaking privately, do not deny Syrian accusations that Israel conducts such missions over Syria, which has left analysts pondering why last Thursday's incident ended differently.
Retired senior Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, who has worked with Syrian representatives to promote negotiations, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert risked giving Syria grounds for war at a time when, he believed, both sides had a chance to talk peace.
It is more than a year since Syrian guns opened fire on Israeli aircraft. Israeli planes last struck in 2003 across a border that remains tense but largely quiet some 34 years after the last war between the two neighbors ended in an edgy cease-fire.
Military analysts say Israel has conducted reconnaissance flights over Syria to probe its defenses.
Chemical warhead blast in Syria killed Iranian advisers'
An accidental explosion in a secret weapons facility in Syria killed dozens of Syrian and Iranian military engineers as they were trying to mount a chemical warhead on a Scud missile in July, a report has claimed.
Fifteen military personnel and “dozens” of Iranian advisers died when the fuel for the missile caught fire and the weapon exploded.
A cloud of chemical and nerve gases, that included the deadly VX and Sarin agents as well as mustard gas, was sent across the facility in the northern city of Aleppo, according to a new report in Jane's Defence Weekly.
The July 26 explosion had been reported earlier by the official Syrian news agency Sana, which said that only 15 Syrian military personnel were killed and 50 others injured in an accident involving “very explosive products.” It made no mention of Iranian officers also being killed in the blast, which it said was not an act of sabotage.
The engineers were trying to weaponise a Syrian-made Scud missile with a range of around 300 miles when the explosion occurred.
The Iranian engineers were working at the facility as part of a 2005 strategic co-operation agreement between the two countries, whose close ties are seen by Israel and the United States as a major threat to regional security.
Jane’s Defence Weekly said the project included Iranian assistance to develop five pilot facilities in Syria to produce chemical weapons, allowing Syria to advance its programme of such non-conventional weapons that it began in the 1970s.
The report coincided with widespread speculation that an audacious Israeli air strike against another Syrian facility two weeks ago may have destroyed a nuclear shipment from North Korea.
Although Israel has maintained an uncharacteristic silence on what its bombers blew up, US officials led by John Bolton, the hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations, have hinted that North Korea might have been trying to hide nuclear materials in Syria to avoid inspection.
No proof has so far been offered to support the claims, which both Syria and North Korea deny and which critics say recall the whispering campaign about weapons of mass destruction that preceded the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tensions have shot up in recent weeks as American officials warn of the possibility of unleashing a wave of attacks on Iranian to thwart its nuclear programme and to target military facilities allegedly training Shia militias behind attacks on US forces in Iraq.
If true, the Israeli strike would be the most daring long-range mission launched by the air force since it destroyed the Iraqi nuclear plant being built by Saddam Hussein at Osiraq, near Baghdad, in June 1981.
Moshe Maoz, an Israeli expert on Syria, said it was possible the strike involved some kind of nuclear material. He said it would most likely have been a complete imported warhead, given Damascus’s lack of infrastructure to develop its own nuclear programme.
“Israel wouldn’t go for such a bold, daring and dangerous action without a very good reason,” he said. “My guess is that it is something to do with nuclear materials.”
Israel’s unusual silence on the matter may be designed to de-escalate tensions with Syria, which have been running high for a more than a year since Israel failed to wipe out Syria’s Lebanese allies, the Hezbollah guerrilla movement, in a month-long war.
Neither Israel nor Syria – whose military has been in decline since the collapse of the Soviet union, its main backer – now want the border jitters to spill over into outright war, Mr Maoz said.
“My reading of the situation is that Syria was doing this mostly for defence. Syria’s military is more or less obsolete and they have invested most of their military budget on missiles which can hit any part of Israel.”
The strike could also have served as a stark warning to Iran that the Jewish state and its US allies are prepared to strike at any time if Tehran refuse to rein in their nuclear programme.
That message appeared to have got through today. General Mohammad Alavi, the deputy commander of Iran's air force, said Tehran would strike back if Israel launched any raids on its territory.
“We have drawn up a plan to strike back at Israel with our bombers if this regime makes a silly mistake,” he said.
U.S.: Syria On Nuclear Watch List
A senior U.S. nuclear official said Friday that North Koreans were in Syria and that Damascus may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment.
Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, did not identify the suppliers, but said North Koreans were in the country and that he could not exclude that the network run by the disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan may have been involved.
He said it was not known if the contacts had produced any results. "Whether anything transpired remains to be seen," he said.
Syria has never commented publicly on its nuclear program. It has a small research nuclear reactor, as do several other countries in the region, including Egypt. While Israel and the U.S. have expressed concerns in the past, Damascus has not been known to make a serious push to develop a nuclear energy or weapons program.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on Semmel's remarks but noted that the United States had long-standing concerns about North Korea and nuclear proliferation.
"We've also expressed, over time, our concerns about North Korea's activities in terms of dealing with A.Q. Khan and others around the globe," he told reporters.
McCormack said he was not aware of any countries making inquires to the United States about the link between North Korea and Syria.
Proliferation experts have said that Syria's weak economy would make it hard-pressed to afford nuclear technology, and that Damascus — which is believed to have some chemical weapons stocks — may have taken the position that it does not also need nuclear weapons.
Semmel was responding to questions about an Israeli airstrike in northern Syria last week. Neither side has explained what exactly happened, but a U.S. government official confirmed that Israeli warplanes were targeting weapons from Iran and destined for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Israel had gathered satellite imagery showing possible North Korean cooperation with Syria on a nuclear facility.
North Korea, which has a long-standing alliance with Syria, condemned the Israeli air incursion. Israeli experts say North Korea and Iran both have been major suppliers of Syria's missile stock.
Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Thursday that the accusations of North Korean nuclear help were a "new American spin to cover up" for Israel.
Semmel, who is in Italy for a meeting Saturday on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, said Syria was certainly on the U.S. "watch list."
"There are indicators that they do have something going on there," he said. "We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen."
"So good foreign policy, good national security policy, would suggest that we pay very close attention to that," he said. "We're watching very closely. Obviously, the Israelis were watching very closely."
Asked if the suppliers could have been North Koreans, he said: "There are North Korean people there. There's no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran."
Asked if the so-called Khan network, which supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, could have been involved, he said he "wouldn't exclude" it.
Syria, NKorea Deny Nuclear Cooperation
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria and North Korea denied Tuesday they are cooperating on a Syrian nuclear program, and they accused U.S. officials of spreading the allegations for political reasons _ either to back Israel or to block progress on a deal between Washington and Pyongyang.
A front-page editorial in the government newspaper Tishrin also criticized the United States for failing to condemn a Sept. 6 Israeli air incursion, which it called a violation of international law.
Details of the incursion remain unclear. Israel clamped a news blackout on the raid, while Syria said only that warplanes entered its airspace, came under fire from anti-aircraft defenses and dropped munitions and fuel tanks to lighten their loads while they fled.
U.S. officials have said Israeli warplanes struck a target. A military officer said Israel targeted weapons being shipped to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but another official's comments raised speculation the Israelis targeted a nuclear installation.
Andrew Semmel, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, said Syria may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment. He did not identify the suppliers, but said that North Koreans were in Syria and that he could not exclude involvement by the network run by the disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
North Korea strongly denied it secretly helped Syria develop a nuclear program, maintaining the charge was fabricated by U.S. hard-liners to block progress in the North's relations with the United States.
A Syrian Cabinet minister ridiculed the speculation about any cooperation with North Korea.
"All this rubbish is not true. I don't know how their imagination has reached such creativity," Bouthaina Shaaban said.
"Regretfully, the international press is busy justifying an aggression on a sovereign state and the world should be busy condemning it instead of inventing reasons and aims of this aggression," he told Lebanon's Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar.
Syria's nuclear program has long been considered minimal, and the country is known to have only a small research reactor.
In Vienna, Austria, officials for the International Atomic Energy Agency declined comment. But a diplomat associated with the agency said the IAEA "didn't know anything about any nuclear facility in Syria, and if there is something there, we should know."
Syria was the subject of an IAEA investigation in 2004 on suspicions it could have been a customer of the nuclear black market run by the Khan network _ the same operation that supplied Iran and Libya for their clandestine atomic projects. The diplomat in Vienna, who insisted on anonymity, said the IAEA found no concrete evidence of such activity.
Israeli incursions into Syrian airspace are uncommon, unlike in neighboring Lebanon where Israeli warplanes have regularly made reconnaissance flights since last year's war with Hezbollah. Such flights were reported late Tuesday over southern Lebanon.
W. Patrick Lang, former head of Mideast intelligence at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, said Israel's incursion over Syria may have been staged to convince the Syrians that its forces are still formidable despite the inconclusive war with Hezbollah. Syria may have tempered its response for fear of escalation, he added.
"The Syrians are really worried because of the hostility of the Bush administration," said Lang. "If things degenerate, they could end up on the receiving end of a strike from Israel, with the go-ahead from the U.S."
The editorial in Tishrin, which reflects Syrian government thinking in a country where the media is tightly controlled, said the U.S. accusations show Washington's pro-Israel bias and have no credibility.
It said Washington was "busy on behalf of Israel circulating claims" that the incursion involved "possible nuclear facilities supplied by (North) Korea."
"The strange thing is that the Americans are talking on behalf of Israel and are providing excuses and concocting new false spins such as talking about presumed Syrian nuclear activity and completely turning a blind eye about the Israeli nuclear danger," the Syrian editorial said.
Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but has never acknowledged it.
The Syrian newspaper said the accusations "recall those false claims that the Americans and the British circulated about Iraq's nuclear programs."
Tishrin was referring to Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction program, one reasons cited by the U.S. for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No such weapons were found.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, meanwhile, sought to calm tensions with Syria.
"The nervousness in relations between Syria and ourselves is over," Peres told foreign reporters in Jerusalem. "We are clearly ready to negotiate directly with Syria for peace."
Peres' comment followed similar remarks Monday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said he has "a lot of respect for the Syrian leader (President Bashar Assad) and for Syrian behavior."
Olmert said he is prepared for peace negotiations with Syria if the conditions are right. He made the offer of peace talks before, but it was the first time he had mentioned Syria since the reported airstrike. In 2000, Israel-Syria talks neared agreement but broke down over final border and peace arrangements.
Peres: Tensions with Syria have subsided, we're ready for talks
In an indirect reference on Tuesday to the Israeli air incursion over Syria on September 6, President Shimon Peres said that tensions between Syria and Israel have subsided and that Israel is ready for direct peace negotiations with Syria. (For more, click here to watch Haaretz.com TV)
"I do believe the nervousness in the relationship between Syria and ourselves is over," Peres told foreign journalists. "Why go back to rumors and speculation when we say clearly we are ready to negotiate directly with the Syrians for peace."
Peres made the comments at an event at the President's Residence marking the 50th anniversary of Israel's Foreign Press Association.
Meanwhile, another indication that tensions with Syria have quieted somewhat is the fact that the Israel Defense Forces have announced that a round of officer appointments, suspended due to the rise in tensions, would resume. The appointments were halted about a month before the September 6 incident, due to fears of a possible war with Syria during the summer.
On Tuesday, Brigadier General Imad Fares was appointed commander of the Galilee division (division 91). He is replacing Brigadier General Yossi Becher, who will return to his previous position of chief infantry and paratrooper officer. Becher was originally named commander of division 91 when Brigadier General Gal Hirsch quit the IDF following criticism of his performance during the Second Lebanon War. Becher's appointment was a temporary one, and the position is now being manned permanently.
By the end of October, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Moshe Kaplinsky will also step down. Kaplinsky made a surprise announcement in August that he would remain in his position longer than anticipated, presumably because of fears that a war would break out. Replacing Kaplinsky will be Major General Dan Harel.
Despite the resumption of the appointments, the tensions have not completely dissipated. The IDF is still under high alert in the Golan Heights. Military sources have said that the danger of imminent war with Syria has lessened, but there is a reasonable chance that Syria will choose to respond in some alternate way to the September 6 incident. One of the possibilities raising fears among Israel's defense establishment is that Syria may encourage terrorist groups to carry out attacks against Israeli targets in Israel and abroad.
In a related development, Syria and North Korea denied on Tuesday claims that they are cooperating on a Syrian nuclear program. Both accused U.S. officials of spreading the accusations for political reasons - either to back Israel or to block progress on a deal between Washington and Pyongyang.
The two countries spoke out amid widespread speculation over the Israel Air Force operation in Syria two weeks ago, in which U.S. officials have said Israeli warplanes struck a target.
Details of the raid remain unclear, with Israel remaining silent. Syria has said no airstrike took place and that warplanes violated its airspace and dropped munitions to lighten their load as they fled Syrian air defenses.
American and Israeli sources say the Israeli government informed the Bush administration of the planned raid in Syria shortly before the attack, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
It remains unclear whether the Americans expressed support for the raid or were opposed to it. Nor is it known whether U.S. intelligence agencies shared the Israeli assessments regarding the facility targeted. According to the newspaper report, some officials questioned Syria's financial and scientific ability to initiate a nuclear program.
Last week, a senior U.S. non-proliferation official said Syria was believed to be approaching secret suppliers for nuclear technology and that North Korean personnel were in the country, raising theories that the Israelis were targeting a nuclear installation.
A Syrian Cabinet minister ridiculed the speculation on Tuesday. "All this rubbish is not true. I don't know how their imagination has reached such creativity," Bouthaina Shaaban said of the reports of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation.
She said the reports - including ones of a recent North Korean shipment to Syria - were all "fabricated stories which have no value and truth."
"Regretfully, the international press is busy justifying an aggression on a sovereign state and the world should be busy condemning it instead of inventing reasons and aims of this aggression," Shaaban told Lebanon's Hezbollah television station Al-Manar.
North Korea on Tuesday also strongly denied it secretly helped Syria develop a nuclear program, claiming the charge was fabricated by U.S. hardliners to block progress in North Korea's relations with the U.S.
The North Korean foreign ministry said the suspicions "are nothing but a clumsy plot fabricated again by dishonest forces who do not want to see progress in the six-party talks and in the (North Korea)-U.S. relations."
The Syrian state-run newspaper Tishrin said in an editorial on Tuesday that the U.S. was fomenting the accusations to excuse Israel's incursion. It compared them to American claims in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq that then-leader Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.
The accusations against Syria recall those false claims that the Americans and the British circulated about Iraq's nuclear programs, the paper, which reflects Syrian government thinking, said in a front-page editorial.
It said Washington's blatant bias toward Israel has hurt - and continues to hurt - the image the U.S. and its role of justice, fairness and the preservation of international peace.
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