Unsurprisingly, given the revolutions and protests unfolding in states across the Middle East, international reportage on the region in recent weeks has been dominated by coverage of regional unrest. Media reports on Syria from the United States and Europe evince a fascination with the calm that nevertheless abounds here.
From the US, we saw a number of high-profile reports on Syria’s youth amid a sea of speculation regarding whether or not they too will take to the streets: Time: “The Youth of Syria: The Rebels Are on Pause“; The New York Times: “‘Day of Rage’ Protest Fails to Draw Protestors“; The Washington Post: “Will Syria Become More Democratic?“; The Wall Street Journal: “Syrians Revel in Removal of Ban on Social Websites,” and; New York Post: “Sucking Up to Syria.”
On the UK front, we saw coverage not dissimilar from that of the US with a focus largely on the prevailing calm here in Syria. Some highlights include: the BBC; “Syria: Why is There No Egypt-Style Revolution?;” the Guardian: “Syria Clamps Down on Dissent...”
Politics & Diplomacy
On the diplomatic front, we saw a number of papers and magazines, including Foreign Policy, exploring the implications of the arrival of US Ambassador Robert Ford in Damascus in mid-January in addition to ongoing coverage of negotiations between Syria and the IAEA with regard to nuclear inspections.
In late January, The Wall Street Journal featured a coveted interview with President al-Assad and a photo spread of the president by Syrian photojournalist, Carole al-Farah.
In the US, one notable deviation from analysis of regional unrest came from on-going backlash against Vogue’s running of a piece on Syria’s First Lady in December 2010 that also featured the photography of James Nachtwey. Even as American papers and magazines went to print in late February, political pundits and members of the American media were still fuming about the matter: The Week: “Vogue’s ‘Tone-Deaf’ Puff Piece on Syria’s First Lady” and The Atlantic: “Vogue Hearts the Assads.”
In mid-February The Economist ran an article about the Syrian government’s selling of debt in the midst of the region’s crisis while local magazine Syria Today ran a feature article on Syria’s pressing need to advance its research and development (R&D) sector. The article highlighted a number of issues – a paucity of local investment in R&D and correspondingly, a lack of interest in innovation, poor communication between universities, research organizations and industries, and the need to increase protection of intellectual property rights.
To that end, discussions of approaches to advancing the Syrian economy are continual and in early March, the Prime Ministry Building held a workshop here in Damascus that focused on improving the competitiveness of the Syrian economy and methods of attracting increased investment.
Energy, Natural Resources & Infrastructure
Economic relations between Syria and Turkey show continued strengthening as Turkish energy executives arrange for talks in Damascus on March 17 that will address their bids for a share of Syrian power plant tenders, among a number of other related issues.
In Eastern Europe just days ago, Croatia’s INA announced plans to invest USD 230m this year in efforts to extract and refine oil in-country as well as in Syria, Egypt and Angola. The Hayan Block in Syria will receive an estimated USD 69.5m from INA to boost production of both liquid petroleum and gas while the Aphamia Exploration Block, also in Syria, will receive USD 15.5m from INA to expand its exploration.
In the last month, Syria and Turkey also initiated the building of a dam on the Orontes River along their shared border. The river originates in northern Lebanon, eventually making its way to Syria and Turkey. The dam is expected to hold 115 million cubic meters of water. Syrian-Turkish cooperation on the planning of the dam is viewed by some Mideast experts as an example of how the region’s pervasive water scarcity issues can be used as a means of strengthening diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, in the last few days Syria has also initiated a massive irrigation project on the Tigris River in an effort to address severe drought issues in the northeast. Water scarcity is among Syria’s central security concerns.
Syrian and Turkish medical professionals also met last week in Aleppo to discuss approaches to advancing the provision of healthcare in both countries. Further, in a meeting in Tehran with Iranian Health Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi on March 6, Syrian Health Minister Rida Adnan Said expressed strong interest in the development of joint medical systems between Iran and Syria. In recent years, Iran has made notable strides in the field of biomedicine while the Syrian medical industry and the country’s healthcare sector have suffered considerably under US sanctions.
Ongoing regional unrest has had a deleterious impact on the local tourism industry. Predictably, skittish foreign tourists are hedging their travels plans to the region and are likewise postponing travel to Syria, amid foreign concern that the unrest in the region could take hold here. The crisis throughout the region has fallen within peak tourist season and Syria is already paying a price for it, regardless of its exceptional standing amid neighboring countries. The hope is that European and Asian tourists (who far outnumber visitors from America) will soon forget any concerns about instability and resume booking their travel plans.
This week’s press highlight comes from Phil Sands, a British reporter based in Damascus who is among a handful of accredited foreign journalists working in Syria. In his March 6 report for The National, “Population Surge in Syria Hamper’s Country’s Progress,” Sands calls attentions to Syria’s population boom – an issue of vital relevance to the country’s economic development and water scarcity concerns. According to Sands, the country’s population increased by over 80,000 between January and February of this year. Following trends common throughout much of the world, Syria’s rapid population growth is generally not found in its more developed metropolitan areas such as Damascus, but instead comes from its impoverished, rural agricultural areas – most notably in the east which also suffers from the most severe food and water shortages in the country. Indeed, the UN has placed Syria ninth on its list of the world’s fastest growing countries and this growing birth rate has adversely affected the country’s ability to improve the living standards of Syrian citizens – who number about 21 million. At the core of the issue, is the delicate work of introducing methods of contraception, which for a number of cultural, religious and economic reasons, remains a formidable task. At its current growth rate of 2.37 percent, the Syrian population is growing by 500,000 annually. High unemployment rates (official estimates are at about 10 percent, but many experts maintain it is likely closer to 15), comparatively slow economic growth, and a shortage of university spots mean that growing numbers of young Syrians will face poor educational and economic opportunities unless new official policies are effectively implemented to curb population growth.