George Ajjan | Political TV pundit United States
July 7th, 2007

Re: ‘If you had the choice what would you change in Syria?

Despite my origin, I cannot be properly considered a Syrian expatriate, as my ancestors left the city of Aleppo well before the modern entity called the Syrian Arab Republic even came to exist. Nevertheless, from my standpoint the most important step its government can take today is to maximize the opportunity for Syrian expatriates to invest capital in their country of origin. There is¬ nothing so directly actionable¬ that would have a more positive impact on Syria and its neighbors.

Syrian √©migr√©s, with the wealth and success they have achieved in the Diaspora, are their homeland‚??s greatest natural resource. Beriod. Over the years, many statistics have been bandied about, attempting to quantify just how much money lies in the hands of Syrian expatriates. Figures in the range of $50 billion appear frequently, while numbers as high as $80 billion or even $100 billion have been suggested. But, like most discussions related to the Middle East, ranging from the first price quoted by a merchant in the Hamidiyeh Souq to any ‚??intelligence‚?Ě offered by Seymour Hersh, a discount rate of about 90% should be applied.

For example, does the $100 billion figure include the country‚??s entire gold reserves, a fortune purportedly stolen from the Syrian people by Rifaat Assad as he went into exile? Does it account for the ‚??contingency‚?Ě Swiss bank accounts belonging to close relatives of the President? What about the cash skimmed off the top by Syria‚??s favorite working class hero, Rami Makhlouf?

Despite these anomalies, is it reasonable to assume that $10 billion or so lies in the bank accounts of expatriated Syrian citizens? Absolutely. One can easily imagine the existence of 10,000 Syrians who have gone abroad and become millionaires. 10,000 x $1 million = $10 billion. Even if that capital was repatriated over a 10 year period, it would still make Syria‚??s rate of Foreign Direct Investment as a percentage of GDP the envy of many developing nations.

Thus, the main focus of the Syrian government should be attracting these funds to be invested internally. Doing so would offer many positive results, not the least of which would be job growth, as investment projects will require the hiring of many individuals for administrative, industrial, and many other types of work. The creation of new businesses, offering enhanced products and services, would also raise the quality of life in Syria. Additionally, the repatriation of Syria‚??s capital would also improve relations with its western neighbor, who would no longer be oppressed by the stacks of Syrian cash ‚??occupying‚?Ě the vaults of Lebanese banks.*** Also, ramped-up expatriate investment would bring not only monetary capital, but also an influx of human capital, offering the Syrian economy the benefit of all the business experience in many industries possessed by the investing expatriates. The transfer of these skills would enhance Syria‚??s work force even in its existing economy.

The mechanism for repatriating this capital¬ will be a complex one, requiring an ongoing effort to administer, manage, adjudicate, and refine. Fortunately, some infrastructure already exists in the form of a cabinet ministry created exclusively for managing relationships with Syrian expatriates. Bouthaina Shaaban, longtime aide to Hafez Assad as well as his son Bashar, heads this department. Unfortunately, the scope of its work thus far has been limited to listening tours with Syrian citizens living abroad, and the inauguration of an annual expatriates conference.

Such projects barely scratch the surface. Investors do not part with their hard-earned money easily. It will take much more than qualitative feel-good talk shops to achieve real results. Quantitative metrics must be established, making a clear case why Syria is a more attractive investment option than the myriad other choices available. Syria must respect the intelligence and prowess of its native sons and daughters to attract their investment, not just take for granted their natural inclination to return home with their riches. The Expatriates Ministry must tackle this hurdle aggressively and with the utmost professionalism. All of its communication to the target audience of investors needs to completely shred the prevailing image of Syria‚??s stale and antiquated business climate.

Also, in order to attract Syrian capital, expatriates will need serious assurances. Whatever passes for ‚??investment laws‚?Ě in the here-and-now simply won‚??t cut it. Iron-clad legistlation must be passed to establish a new class of investments, detailing the eligible sectors and industries, as well as the requirements of Syrian ownership. Most critically, the new laws must also protect this new investment class from extraordinary corruption and bakhsheesh. These initiatives need buy-in and commitment from the very top. The President himself must stake his reputation on the success of this program.

Skeptics will scoff at this proposal, cynically believing that the likes of Rami Makhlouf will never relinquish their monopolies. Other idealists will demand that such individuals be punished for their ill-gotten riches and excluded from future economic growth. That just isn‚??t going to happen. Nor is it wise to advocate ‚?? if you take away a child‚??s weekly allowance, he might smash the windows of the house in retaliation. Syria didn‚??t get into this corrupt oligarchical mess overnight, and it‚??s not going to get out of it with the wave of a magic wand, either.

The answer may lie in the realization that ROI, even in inefficient markets like Syria, need not be a zero-sum game. Perhaps now, Rami Makhlouf puts in $1 and earns $2, while someone else puts in $1 and loses it all. The goal should be something like this: Rami Makhlouf puts in $1, a group of investors puts in $1, and each takes out $1.50. Thus, part of the plan to attract capital might include a $1 billion fund (for starters) set up by Mr. Makhlouf, pledged to match funds from expatriates who invest ‚?? with a progressive match rate proportional to the amount of capital repatriated.

The Syrian Arab Republic is no one‚??s family farm. Everyone recognizes the unhealthy and disproportionate share of the country‚??s riches taken by a select few, an imbalance which Syria can begin to rectify by bringing home the financial and human capital of native Syrians. Most importantly, the repatriation of capital will make vast strides toward job growth, a stronger economy, enhanced trade, and a higher quality of life.

George Ajjan is a Republican activist and a member of the Arab American Institute’s National Policy Council. He is the creator of syriapol, a Syrian Democracy project that polls Syrian public opinion using conjoint analysis.

*** Learn to laugh, you‚??ll live longer.

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17 Responses to the Article

david s Says:

I haven’t heard much of Rifat (the bad seed) lately. Despite his intermittant betrayals, his brother Hafez had a soft spot for him and did allow him to keep much of his ill-gotten gains in exile. Rumors abound as to the enormity of his thievery, and how his wealth bought him the friendship of Chirac in France. When I visited Damascus 2 decades ago, I heard many stories of how brutal Rifat was. He was truly feared and hated by the people.
As to the substance of your comments George; the first and most important reform the government needs to consider regarding repatriation of funds from expats is amnesty for those expats who may have circumvented the draft.
As usual, excellent work George.

George Ajjan Says:

Thanks David.

I think the exemption from military service can easily be arranged. First of all, there already is a system for expats to pay their way out. Something like $15,000 for people living in the US (less for those in the Gulf for example). This was one of the first reforms put in place when Bashar Assad ascended, if I recall correctly. But I suppose it can be waived for investors.

david s Says:

15k seems reasonable, but waiving and pardoning folks would incent investment in-country is an additional step to be considered. From the limted number of expats i have met over the years, avoiding military service is a main component of their decision to leave the country. Their desire does not at all reflect a negative opinion towards their country, just a strong desire not to spend the requisite time in the army.

Mr. Israeli Says:


Although I may not be invited to comment on the situation in Syria (obviously I know very little of it, and only through the media and the few Syrians I’ve met in my life), I would like to ask you one question. One thing that seems to be happening in Syria, as well as in Israel right now, is a continuous see-saw between preparations for war and hints of behind-the-scene talks. What worries me greatly, is that here too Israel and Syria will miss the opportunity again, and the generals and intelligence “experts” (who at the end of the day trained their entire lives to fight, not to sign peace treaties) will pressure the leaders to start a war, on pretense that now is better timing, given the adversary’s ongoing preparations. Given the tension that is in the air, what do you think Syria should or could do to stop the Israeli leadership from even considering such an option. The history of the region is so cynical, that it almost seems like we HAVE to go through painful losses before taking serious steps towards peace. See the 1973 war – a mere 4 years later Sadat and Begin were talking peace. Must we go through a war with Syria? What do you think?

George Ajjan Says:

Mr. Israeli,

Of course you are invited to comment! Thank God for the internet.

It seems odd to me that after 34 years with no direct engagement, war would spontaneously break out between Israel and Syria.

I continue to believe that the best hope is that we maintain the status quo for the next year and a half, and pray that whomever ascends to the White House in 2009 (be he/she Democrat or Republican) is smart enough to recognize that the lowest-hanging presidential legacy fruit in the orchard is a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty.

If the President of the US makes such a deal a priority, I believe that it will far overshadow any little ongoing war games and military posturing. So I don’t think another war is required to make peace.

As I have argued before:

While the Israeli military can inflict major damage on Lebanon and certainly wage similar air strikes on Syria with relative impunity, its leaders know that this strategy is not sustainable. Unless Israel occupies every square inch of land from which missiles could be launched, the possibility remains for isolated rocket barrages to send tens of thousands of her citizens into bomb shelters.

Only one force has demonstrated the capability to stop such activities: the military and intelligence services of the countries from which these attacks could be launched. The only way that Israel will be safe in the long term is for these tightly controlled Arab state institutions to deal with internal rogue elements themselves. Essentially, Israelis need the infamous Syrian moukhabarat to work to disrupt terrorists instead of facilitating them. They would have to conclude that this outsourcing of crackdowns against militants, which has already been done with Egypt and Jordan, would ultimately increase Israel’s security. Of course, the price for the Syrian and Lebanese governments to switch sides and comply would be ‘land for peace’ treaties that allow those governments to recover some of their dignity.”

Mr. Israeli Says:

What you say makes sense, and I really don’t understand why Bush cannot show the American people that he infact does know how to differentiate between “bad guys” and “terrorists” exactly by talking with Bashar. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’ll be Israel that pulls the trigger first in any confrontation with Syria (big or small) in the near future. What’s your take on Bashar’s so-called “ultimatum” (recently reported in the Arab media) claiming that he’s giving a few months for a peaceful track, or else he’ll have to resort to a return of the Golan by force. Although both sides know they cannot “win” or achieve their objectives, I’m not sure that’s enough to deter either…

Alex Says:

Mr. Israeli,

I’ll answer this one … that was the silliest statement I heard in a long time … the Syrian regime never spoke like “if we do not have the Golan back by September we will attack Israel”

The statement was attributed to “a senior Syrian official”… I think it was the New York Sun that claims to have interviewed such an official.

Syria will not launch war. ask any Syrian and you will get the same answer … we are not in the mood to launch wars. Read this article to get an idea of the mood in Damascus today.

Mr. Israeli Says:

Hi Alex, good to hear you again.

Please forgive me for insinuating that Syria or Syrians are in a “mood for war”. Obviously, none of us are. But I can’t help recalling the missed signals which became misinterpreted signals in the 60’s and 70’s just prior to what became full-fledged confrontations. Sometimes, carrying out “mere” military exercises and “natural and defensive” buildups can bring about war faster than you can spell “silliest statement”. Please do not misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting we ARE heading towards war. I’m merely observing the signals that are being sent mainly through various media (Western and Arab) that are creating an atmosphere of Peace-or-War, but with time running out for either.

I can tell you that by merely reading our daily papers, one is easily swung from optimism to pessimism almost hourly. That kind of atmosphere is NOT good recipe for calm and rational decision-making. I’d hate to hear what the generals or other “advisors” are projecting. Chances are, they don’t want to make mistakes and be caught off-guard, and will therefore paint grimmer pictures than probably exist on the ground. I truly hope that our leaders will keep a cool head throughout these daily exchanges through the media, and not get carried into adventures in which all sides lose…

Mr. Israeli Says:

Hi Alex, George,

I just read in all the major newspapers in Israel that some “leaks” have come out from the meetings between Ahmedinejad and Assad, as written in Al Sharq Al Awsat, saying that Syria will get a tremendous amount of support (in just about everything) from Iran, in return for NOT negotiating with the Israelis. Obviously, I don’t know if to believe the leaks, but suppose it is true, what on earth is Bashar thinking? Does he really think he can exist long in this region by forming such an alliance with the one person the entire world is coming to view as a “potential” 2nd Hitler? And, what is Israel supposed to do now? Are we supposed to ignore this, and continue “full speed ahead”? Ahead towards what? War? If Syria doesn’t want war, why is it tying itself to such extent with Iran?

Alex Says:

Mr. Israeli,

Don’t believe anything Syria-related in Asharq al-Awsat : )

Assad will not reverse Syria’s strategic policies that started in 1991 after a visit from an Iranian president.

Syria will not drop Iran from its list of friends. But it will not be and Iranian puppet and it will not adopt any Iranian directions which are not harmonious with Syria’s strategic choices, including seeking peace with Israel.

SYria needs all the allies it can have, including Iran … Here is what is planned for Syria in Washington over the next year.

Mr. Israeli Says:


I hope you’re right. But I don’t know how much those happy-meetings with Ahmedinejad, Nasralla, and Mashal are helping change the mood to a peaceful one… The term “Axis of Evil” is still very much engrained in people’s minds, and it is high time Syria is taken out of that honorary club, don’t you think? As for the plan in Washington for the next year, as per the article, I certainly hope Bush isn’t going for one last adventure before leaving office. And if he already HAS to take his frustrations out on someone, let him do so on Iran’s nuclear reactors, not on Syria. I think, of course, that even doing that could bring about regional war, with the assumption that Iran will retaliate against Israel, Israel will respond heavily against Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah will join in turn, and here we go again, just much more serious than ever before.

I actually think it’s super-important for Syria to remain an ally of Iran, but not Ahmedinejad’s Iran. Even Rafsanjani and of course Khatami were “reasonable” compared with this lunatic. And the amazing thing is, that the mullahs let him say whatever he wants. I really hope he doesn’t turn out to be a 2nd Hitler, because if so, the Iranian people will suffer far worse than the German population did in WWII. We know that the Iranian people, like the Syrians, are good people, who at the end of the day want only peace. But it is their regime that is holding their freedom and their future hostage. I hope that behind closed doors Assad is talking differently about his alliance with Iran.

Alex Says:

Mr. Israeli,

Asharq al-Awsat has been trying almost on a daily basis for two years to promote the same image of the Syrian regime … a threat to the Arab world, to Sunni Islam, and to Syria itself.

There latest story is consistent with all the other stories over the past two years. But you think Israel would not have found out something that Asharq’s “sources” supposedly found out?

What I am trying to tell you is that when there is a decision to increase pressure on Damascus, like we seem to have now, they all join … Asharq has always raised the temperature on Damascus whenever Washington decided to do so.

You have correctly noted that Ahmedinejad is not the supreme leader of Iran. alone, he can not take any decision on war and peace. The Iranian regime is not suicidal. They will not attempt anything crazy.

When Bashar was asked why he accepts to talk to to the Iranian president despite the objectionable language Ahmedinejad uses against Israel, Assad said that as long as there is extreme language from Washington, it is only natural that the region will produce a similar, opposite language somewhere. That was not behind closed doors, it was in public. Bashar said that Syria differs from Iran’s way of seeing things. He said “I am repeatedly calling for peace with Israel, how can I call for its destruction?”

Just like the Neocons, Ahmedinejad’s tone is partially about theatrics. Not as worrying as it sounds, but not totally benign either. Israel should know how to read his signals… the serious part and the show business part. Syria does the same with the threats coming form this US administration. Some are serious, others are not worth worrying about.

Mr. Israeli Says:


I understand your stance on Asharq al-Awsat and, to be frank, I didn’t know that was the case. It is very possible and likely that Israel and Israelis are worrying too much over this so-called “upgraded” Syrian-Iranian military alliance. Problem is, it hasn’t been long enough since the last time we heard some crazy guy with a real drive to acquire destructive capabilities say similar things against the (in that case Jewish) people. We have an innate fear, caution, and distrust towards anyone and anythings that even hints at our destruction. At the end of the day, that is the only reason we sought the capabilities we have today. We never have, and never will, declare an intent to destroy another nation, or another people. I’m obviously putting aside our terrible treatment of the Palestinians, which historians will determine the exact reasons for that taking place. It is extremely difficult for us NOT to envision a 2nd-Hitler in Ahmedinejad, though I agree with you, he’s not the sole decision-maker nor the “boss” in Iran. I wonder, though, whether Khamenei could ever “become” suicidal. From everything I’ve ever heard him say, there’s not great reasons to think the contrary.

Bashar’s support of Iran is clear, but he is truly gambling everything he’s got, because if the Bush administration is looking for reasons and “facts” that support their theories, this type of alliance and these supportive statements are exactly what they’re “looking for”. That is to say, that’s exactly what they’ll play for the American people should they decide to drop a couple thousand tons of bombs on Syrian installations, or worse. Nobody in Washington seems to want to piss the Iranians off (just yet), but like that article suggests, perhaps that’s not the case with regards to Syria. If I were Bashar (and thankfully I’m not), I’m not sure I’d be gambling this way. Even the North Korean leader is doing everything he can to be taken out of the famous “Axis”. Surely it can’t serve the Syrian people to have Syria be the only recognized partner to this Axis, together with Iran.

Alex Says:

Mr Israeli,

An Israeli official (or top general, I can’ remember) denied the Ahsarq al-Awsat story about the Iran/Syria deal.

It was in Haaretz yesterday.

Mr. Israeli Says:


Yes, I read that as well (it was even repeated by Olmert and Barak). What worries me still, is that signals like these reinforce and support the hawks within our governement, as well as the various “advisors” at the highest levels. These guys, who have been earning a salary for decades with the main objective of preparing for war (as is the general purpose of any army), will look for any reason to “release some tension” and try to fix their battered image resulting from last summer’s fiasco.

They may well take these signals and translate them for the leadership in such way that it will be almost impossible, bordering on irresponsible, for them NOT to protect Israel by preparing for war. It is unfortunately the nature of conflicts, that if and when two nations begin preparations for war, all too often it was impossible to stop war from happening. Every move seen by the other side is taken as a reinforcement or confirmation of your basic assumptions, and you find yourself convinced that war must occur. From that moment, it is merely a countdown, which probably lasts weeks, not even months.

I’m afraid of getting us all into that place. Imagine Israel tomorrow morning publicly conducts a medium-range missile test in the Negev, mimicking the delivery of an atomic weapon over a large city somewhere in the region. That action would send very clear signals of war to all those interested in hearing them. That could (justifiably) cause an immediate reversal of defensive to offensive preparations by various neighboring nations, including Syria, which in turn will provide Israel the excuse to do the same. So you see, even an “imaginary” demonstration of a significant military alliance with a nation that declares as its main goal the annihilation of all Zionists, could easily be viewed here as Syria’s own “missile test”. And to be frank, that worries the crap out of me.

I truly believe that one of the main reasons, perhaps THE main reason, why we don’t have peace already in the region, has been the inability of our various leaders (Israeli and Arab) to see and understand how their actions, and inactions, could effect the other side. We have time and again read the map wrongly, and exactly when it was the absolutely PERFECT time and the BEST conditions to make peace, we went to war! Go explain that to first-year political science students…

Alex Says:

Mr Israeli,

Today I found out that it is even more pathetic. This Syrian opposition site posted the same Iran/Syria 1 billion dollar story in 2006, and Asharq copied it as is and suggested that they had this exclusive info that this is what happened last week.

Now to the chances of an accidental war that starts out of fear …. I hope this time it won’t happen. I know the Syrians will most likely not be drawn into starting it. The Israelis? … they know (from private negotiations) exactly Syria’s position on Iranian threats to Israel. Although in public your leaders might pretend they share American concerns about Syria, in private they understand Damascus reasonably well. Syrian ties to Iran are probably targeted at this American administration, not at Israel.

But I understand your fears. I am writing from the peaceful and far city of Montreal. I would have been much more anxious had I been a resident of Tel Aviv or Beirut.

Mr. Israeli Says:


With Quebecois aspirations for independence not forgotten, I wouldn’t call living in Montreal “peaceful”… :-) But yes, clearly living here, just 90 minutes away from Damascus, and minutes away from Iranian missiles, does tend to bring about “certain anxiety”…

I really REALLY hope that loud and clear messages from the highest levels are being given behind the scenes that speak of peace and leave no room for ambiguity. I fear that at least here in Israel, too many of the PM’s advisors are hawkish, and that too many army and intelligence officers feel a desparate need to redeem themselves in some fashion, soon. I can’t think of a better way for them to do that, except for war… as sad as that may be. Problem with democracies is that sometimes public opinion matters more than your own set of beliefs. And a weak politician (as Olmert seems to be thus far) might prefer satisfying the momentary emotional needs of his future-electorates rather than follow his own program. We must remember that most leaders are NOT bold, unfortunately, and all too often that means changing policies from one moment to the next. Assad needs to understand this, and not try to “have his cake and eat it too” before the Israeli public will change the minds of its leadership. Time is running, and the “Defensive” Industry doesn’t function well driving on “Neutral”. It’s time to move into high gear, and publicly.

I so much don’t want to write in your blog again in 6 weeks time, after a month-long “adventure” of terrible consequence to the nations in our region… And like with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, here too it can happen all too quickly, even without anyone’s “intention”. And then what will say to our children? We couldn’t help it?

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