LESTER HOLT: Given all the attention being placed on Syria, we thought we'd take a closer look at the country, its people, a bit of its history and, of course its relationship with the U.S. Joining us now to give us a crash course on Syria is Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. Daniel, good evening and thanks for joining us.
DANIEL PIPES, MIDDLE EAST FORUM: Good evening, Lester.
HOLT: I know Syria came about after World War I. Has it ever gotten along in that part of the world with its neighbors?
PIPES: Syria does have a difficult tradition—tradition of difficult relations with its neighbors—Turkey to the north and Lebanon to the West, Israel and Jordan to the South, and Iraq to the East. By and large, I think it is safe to say that those relations have not been good. Interestingly, while relations between Iraq and Syria were prickly for about two decades, they improved substantially in the last three years, not at the best time, I would say in retrospect. But they've not been bad in recent times. The key thing perhaps is to note, that the one country in the world that is today a satellite state is Lebanon. It is under the virtual complete control of Syria.
HOLT: And Syria has, I think, a large part of its revenue comes from oil. But tell me, has it enjoyed some of the same fruits of that oil that other countries in the region have?
PIPES: Syria is not a major oil exporter by Middle Eastern standards, but from the point of view of the Syrian economy, oil is indeed very important and there's a substantial dependence on it. The Syrian economy has been in a tailspin now for well over a decade—just terrible growth or terrible results. As a result, the military arsenal, military potential is way down as a result of the Syrian standard of living has gone down. This is a country that is really not that different from Iraq under Saddam Hussein, just a little bit better. Everything about Iraq was worse.
HOLT: And this is a country that was under the hand of Hafez Assad for a very, very long time. Was there an expectation that it would modernize under his son when he took over?
PIPES: There was indeed, Lester. His son was better educated, had spent some time in London, married a woman of Syrian extraction, but who lived in England, was British. All these factors plus the hints that he was interested in the Internet suggested that when he came to power, almost three years ago, there would be a big change. Well, it didn't happen.
There was talk about private banks and hard currency and the like, but, again, it didn't happen. And Syria remains the same kind of stultifying - still has the same kind of stultifying regime and the economy is doing badly and the rhetoric is extreme, and you know, Syria was the only state in the world that endorsed Saddam Hussein, and so they hoped that he would beat us.
So it's a pretty dead-end situation. I think it's important to note that while there has been a substantial change in the American attitude, the U.S. government's attitude toward Syria, you know, going from a soft position to a hard position is quite a change. We should not be talking about making war on Syria. That's really not the topic. The topic is about putting pressure on Syria, something the U.S. government has not done for two decades.
HOLT: And does Syria have any true friends, countries that it can call true allies?
PIPES: Well, Saddam, wherever he is. Others are sympathetic as in the case of Iraq to the plight of the Syrians. But there's not a whole lot of sympathy for the Assad regime.
HOLT: All right, Daniel Pipes, thanks so much for coming on.
PIPES: Thank you.