Moment of truth

In an exclusive interview, Syrian deputy PM Abdullah Al Dardari says his country will withstand the fallout from Rafik Hariri’s brutal assassination. Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  October 23, 2005

Moment of truth|~|1 48-CRW_2065-200.jpg|~|BULLISH: Dardari is confident about Syria's economy.|~|SYRIA is on the cusp of a new era of constructive change, introspection and improvement — at least that's how government officials and the state media in Damascus are portrayng the country's present environment. Talking to them, there seems to be a sense of ambivalence towards the storm brewing outside the borders of this embattled Arab nation. International pressure on Damascus in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri — which led to an exodus of Syria’s 14,000 soldiers from the country in April — may have embittered Syrians who lost their jobs there. It may also have caused those in power in Damascus to be resentful about leaving a country they long saw as inherently part of Syria. But this is the least of their worries at the moment. The findings of a UN report on the killing of Hariri are to be released to the UN Security Council on October 25 — but there seems to be little apprehension in Syria. Newspapers and the media abroad may be pre-occupied with the conclusions of Detlev Mehlis, the chief of the UN probe, but in Syria, the main story on the front page of the state run Tishreen newspaper last week was about a meeting convened by government officials to address ways to improve cleanliness. During the day and in the evenings the Al Hamidiyah market, adjacent to the famous Oumayed mosque that is next to the shrine of Salah ad-Din, the Kurdish warrior who came to establish the Ayyubid Dynasty, is still buzzing with tourists and shoppers. The Syrian government is also on a charm offensive. Officials are actively courting investors from the oil rich Gulf States, as part of the country’s reform strategy, which aims to open up an economy that has been relatively stagnant for the past 30 years. Just days before the Mehlis report is to be released to the Lebanese government and the UN, the Syrian deputy prime minister, Abdullah Al Dardari, who is very likely to be the next prime minister, held an event at the Palais de Nobles to celebrate with much pomp a US$3.9 billion real estate development spearheaded by Dubai based Emaar Properties and a Syrian group of businessmen. Both Dardari and the chairman of Emaar, Mohamed Alabbar reiterated that the occasion marked an important juncture in the development of Syria’s economy, that the country is open for business and has little to worry about. Though the situation for Syria appears to be tense in the international arena, Alabbar said he wasn't concerned. “Not in my business. I’m in the business of making money for my shareholders. I’ve been in [negotiations] with them for six months. I think these guys are doing a good job. They are very welcoming and they are forthcoming. “The laws are changing positively. These guys are very serious people and I like to do business with them. “We have to be optimistic as well. You can’t live your life and worry,” Alabbar told Arabian Business. With such words there is little reason to believe in the onset of a political hurricane. But the prospects for Syria could very well turn grim, should the Mehlis report implicate its government in the killing of Hariri. In all likelihood it will, according to a source close to the investigation committee who spoke to Arabian Business earlier in the month, on condition of anonymity — as well as the most recent news reports that indicate the probe has drawn up a list of 20 suspects. Though Syria has largely been able to swim against the tide and withstand American sanctions against the country, it also faces the worrying possibility of sanctions from the European Union and UN as well. Such an eventuality would make an already sticky situation all the more tenuous for Damascus as the bulk of its trade is with Europe. More importantly, the graver implication for Syria is the effect on the stalled EU-Association Accord, which Syria has been hoping would be finalised, enhancing its reform process of trade liberalisation. But this has largely been kept on hold due to the ominous political situation with Lebanon. Still, this hasn’t subdued Syria’s deputy prime minister Abdullah Dardari, who was largely upbeat in an extended interview with Arabian Business. “I don’t see any reason why we should always look at the worst-case scenario when we make our planning. Of course, in planning you take consideration of these possibilities, however you cannot plan your future based on a doomsday scenario,” says Dardari. “My projection actually is that the relationship with Europe will steam ahead; the association agreement will be signed, and trade and investment between Syrian and Europe will expand. “Maybe there is talk about increased American sanctions against Syria, but there are already very strict American sanctions on Syria and, as you can see, investors are coming in full force, knowing in advance that the Syrian economy is moving ahead. “We are adopting fully free trade, free investment, an open investment climate, we are liberalising our monetary and fiscal policies, and we are liberalising and deregulating our banking sector and financial system. Investors are not worried about either UN sanctions on Syria or European sanctions on Syria. There are already strict US sanctions on Syria, but that hasn’t deterred investors to come to the country,” adds Dardari. Despite a recent economic report by Bank Audi that claimed “widening political uncertainties” and a “relatively slow reform process” have dampened Syria's growth performance to 2%, Dardari remains bullish. “In a country of 18 million and growing, a growth rate projected to reach 7% in the next few years, if I were an investor I would come to Syria.” Dardari estimates no less than US$10 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) will make its way to Syria from the Gulf states — a figure that is estimated to reach US$16 billion if European investment is accounted for as well. Sensing what some observers say is its gradual isolation in the international community, and a media that paints it as a pariah state, Damascus has also been courting the international media. Its president Bashar Al Assad, for example, made his debut on CNN earlier in the month. While this may allow Syria's government to score points at home, it is clear that the opinion of the international community matters most, and Syria believes it is making headway here as well. “I don’t think Syria is losing the publicity war. Syria is trying to reach out to the international community and to tell the world what Syria stands for and what are the real difficulties in achieving peace in the region — in achieving security, prosperity and establishing democracy in the region,” says Bouthaina Shaaban, minister of expatriates. “It is not Syria that is the obstacle. It is the parties who refuse to establish peace in the region. We believe that a just and comprehensive peace is the only solution for this region and no matter how may attempts they have for partial solutions they are not going to work. “Arab people are not going to give up their rights,” she adds. But even as Damascus tries to rehabilitate its image in public, there is also an indication that it is pursuing secret negotiations with the US to reduce the impact of a damaging conclusion of the Mehlis report. There are unsubstantiated claims that the government is trying to cut a deal with Washington, similar to that it struck with Libyan leader Mohammed Qadafi, to bring the country back into the international fold. But deputy premier Dardari vehemently denies such negotiations are taking place. “If there were any backdoor negotiations why should we hide them?” he says. “Syria is not in the business of backdoor negotiations. Syria is in the business of transparent, open and honest talks to establish good working relationships with the United States. We feel that we have so many interests in common between Syria and the US in the stability and the prosperity of the Middle East. When the Americans are ready for such an open and transparent dialogue they will find open arms in Damascus.” There have also reports that Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy in an attempt to alleviate the pressure on Damascus. Though Dardari would not confirm or deny Bandar’s involvement, he did indicate some form of dialogue was being conducted by outside parties. “I don’t want to specify names. There are many Arab and non-Arab third parties who offered help and we are telling everybody we are ready for an open, transparent, substantive, in-depth dialogue with the United States on issues of common concern towards establishing peace and stability and prosperity in the region,” Dardari explains . Syria, according to Dardari — who doesn’t belong to the Ba’ath party which has ruled the country since coming to power in 1966 — is on solid ground, and not concerned that its ties with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia are endangered by the Mehlis report. “They are [solid] as you can see today,” says Dardari about his country’s relations with the rest of the Arab world. He also discloses further capital inflow from Gulf States heading for the country. “We will announce considerable investment from other Arab countries in the very near future and, therefore, I really don’t see any concerns. There will be considerable investments announced with Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Dubai.” However, relations with Lebanon may be a great deal trickier to master. Both countries have openly voiced their displeasure with one another, with reports claiming that the Syrian prime minister refused to take calls from his Lebanese counterpart Fouad Siniora three times. The vitriol is also likely to increase some time after the Mehlis report is issued. The Lebanese press is awash with information, both substantiated and unsubstantiated, that reiterates Beirut’s suspicions that Syria or a fringe of those in power had a hand in the killing of Hariri. “I am sure it will impact,” admits Dardari, when asked if the Mehlis report will affect Syrian-Lebanese relations. But he adds: “Our Lebanese brothers must realise that Syria is completely exonerated of the blood of Rafik Hariri. Whoever assassinated Rafik Hariri had in their minds the target of undermining Syrian-Lebanese relations.” Dardari wants to take a wait and see approach and is reluctant to hypothesise about the Mehlis report as some in Syria have, alleging it has largely been driven by a political agenda. “Let's first see the findings. We are certain that if these findings were based on technical and criminal evidence, Syria is 100% innocent. We really have nothing to worry about. Whether the report will exonerate Syria’s name or not because of political motivations, that’s a different story,” explains Dardari. “If it is politicised we will deal with it then. However, we know, we are certain we are innocent and, as the president said, if there is any Syrian individual involved in this crime they will be treated as traitors and they will be punished accordingly." Shaaban — who has largely been Syria’s face in the Western media — says her country will continue along the same lines, secure in the knowledge that it has done nothing wrong. “Our approach has always been consistent that we are against anything that makes the region more turbulent. We believe that the problem is not our approach. The problem is that Syria is targeted or threatened because it is clinging to the rights of Arabs and it has a stand against occupation. Syria does not have a policy of assassinations,” she says. That however, may be a hard sell in Beirut. Before Hariri was killed on February 14, thousands of Syrians worked in Lebanon and the capital they repatriated back home played an important role in reviving Syria’s largely impoverished economy. The death of Hariri, and the ensuing hostile environment in Lebanon towards Syrians — who are viewed not only as culpable in the death of their former premier, but also responsible for the wide spread corruption in the country — led to an exodus of Syrian workers and a souring of relations. The road to reconciliation, at least in Dardari’s view, is through old mercantile relationships and a history of trade that ties the two countries together. “Both sides have to sit down and review, at least from an economic point of view, the future of the relationship. The Syrian economy is moving in a direction of opening up, setting up its own financial services, free trade, an open investment climate and therefore the role of the Lebanese economy, as the breathing lung of the Syrian economy as it [was] in the past, is no longer valid,” explains Dardari. “Lebanon and Syria must iron out a new economic relationship based on the developments of the Syrian economy. Our Lebanese brothers must tell us what exactly they want from Syria. We know what we want. We want a good, brotherly, open, solid, economic, relationship — reflecting the historical relationship between the two peoples. It's up to our Lebanese brothers to define what role they want to play.” Damascus and Beirut don’t have diplomatic relations. To many Lebanese, the absence of a Syrian embassy in Beirut is an affirmation of Syria’s belief that Lebanon is inherently part of it. Asked if he envisions a change in the present status quo, with embassies being established in both capitals, Dardari is indirect. “When the Lebanese authorities come and request it, we will look into it,” he says. “We are open to our Lebanese brothers and what they think is good for them, we think is good for us.” ||**||

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