Syria - the modern sphinx in Middle East's power struggle

Posted in Broader Middle East | 11-Mar-10 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

"The 2010 meeting in Damascus between President Bashar Asad,Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and President Ahmadinejad was meant to provide the world…
"The 2010 meeting in Damascus between President Bashar Asad,Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and President Ahmadinejad was meant to provide the world with the image of a strong partnership"
Damascus seen from Damascus is different than Damascus seen from either Bucharest or Beirut. The first viewpoint offers nuances that are otherwise ignored.

An isolated, almost pariah-like country to the West, Syria is trying to improve its position: if it cannot make the front row, then at least several chairs closer to the stage.

For the past several years, with pressure coming from both the Arab street and the U.S. administration, Syria has not budged much. Why hasn't it dramatically altered course once forced into a corner? Syria's steadfastness is not a sign of either exceptionalism or blunt pragmatism. It is a mix of several elements, including limited options, adaptability, Western blunders and static policy towards it.

The regime in Damascus is playing a game of 'wait and see' for how the cards will be dealt in the next round. Some hurry to say that Syria has the Joker, pointing to its borders with Iraq and Lebanon, to the influence it has in the latter, by looking at Syria's ties with Hamas and Hezbollah, and not lastly, its decades-long partnership with Iran and the new rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

That is all rather impressive; and with genuine, serious consequences on the ground.

The Syria - U.S. Relationship

A well known slogan says that there is no war in the Middle East without Egypt, and no peace without Syria. Some slogans are just slogans, but experience proves this one has some truth to it.

Back in the days of the Bush administration, the mindset was that pressure works better when there are fewer or no alternatives. That was the theory, anyway. Economic sanctions rarely (if ever) have positive effects. Their enforcers intend to pressure the establishment. But in most cases it is the general public that is affected, while the regime secures its position. More often than not, the regime finds ways to turn public opinion against those imposing sanctions.

For Syria, relations with the United States are significant for political and strategic reasons.

The majority, if not all, Middle Eastern countries want a better relationship with the U.S. They may disapprove of a number of U.S. policies, but nonetheless their interests are linked to the strongest international player in the arena, which to this day remains America.

Interest and prestige is the name of the game.

The assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri prompted the United States to recall its Ambassador from Damascus. Five years later, with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) still investigating the crime and confronted with a different set of pressing regional and international matters, President Obama's administration named Robert Ford, deputy US ambassador to Iraq, as its new ambassador to Syria. While not an uncontroversial decision, the nomination of Robert Ford does not signal a significant course alteration with respect to Damascus. Among the priorities of the new Ambassador (after being approved by the Senate) will be to positively encourage both Israeli - Syrian talks over the Golan Heights and action on the areas of dispute between Washington and Damascus, such as Syria's relations with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and Syria's role in Iraq. For the time being it is safe to say that Syrian-American relations await clearer skies.

Security in the Golan Heights

The Golan Heights have been particularly calm for a few decades now, regardless of Syria's support for resistance movements and activities elsewhere. Why would not they organize their own resistance? Yet why would they? There are agreements brokered by the international community, and should Syria break its agreements from the deal, not only would it lose the Golan Heights but would probably stand to lose much more.

Interested in finding out more about the Golan Heights, I sat down and talked to Major General Jilke, the man in command of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

UNDOF stands between the two conflicting parties after a 1974 agreement by the UN Security Council. The key word of their mandate is 'prevention': "The whole area of separation is on the Western side defined by the so-called Alpha line, and on the Eastern side by the so-called Bravo line. Both lines are not to be crossed by either party."

Every now and then, incidents take place. Most times civilians cross the lines because, in their view, the whole land is Syrian. Sometimes, soldiers enter areas through error where only UNDOF should be, Major General Jilke explained.

Last October, however, they dealt with a more serious type of incident that involved ten kilos of cocaine set to be smuggled into Israel from Syria. An Israeli patrol spotted the smugglers; the armed exchange that followed ended with two smugglers dead.

"The Israeli forces erected a fence but the fence is not in the same location as the Alpha line. It is more on the Western side. Sometimes between the Alpha line and Israeli fence there is a distance of some one hundred meters or even two kilometers. This terrain is used by farmers, mushroom pickers, shepherds, by Syrian police forces or by Moukhabarat (Syrian intelligence services) and the Israeli defence forces have been quite relaxed about it until the last war in Lebanon."

Major General Jilke pointed out the difference between the strategic military and political importance of the Golan. On the military side the value has diminished. "Technology has changed, we are not talking so much these days about conventional war, conducted by artillery, planes and tanks. That's still possible but there are quicker, more effective ways to use rockets, and missiles today have a range of 200 km. Thus it does not matter if the Golan Heights is on this or the other side."

On the political side the main issue is mutual trust.

"In case the two nations decide to go for a peace agreement ... there is a need for strong politicians and strong military men to implement it. If you have those strong politicians and military men it would not be correct or logical to feel the loss of Golan as a strategic threat, after a peace agreement has been concluded. On the contrary it is a contribution to a stable situation."

Lebanon and Syria

Sources, Western and non-Western alike in Damascus and Beirut, assert that Lebanon will not be a casualty in any negotiation between Syria and the United States. Then again, not everyone defines the term casualty in exactly the same manner.

Syria does not need to put boots on the ground to influence Lebanese internal affairs. After 2004 the regime in Damascus learned that today, new ways of conducting business were needed.

Post Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, and with a government led by Saad Hariri, Syria is not dictating per se in Lebanon. Neither is Saudi Arabia or any other country. In spite of Lebanon's fragmented society and political class, or maybe just because of that, it is a challenging time. It may well be very difficult for any single country to subdue all sects without having a full-blown rebellion on their hands.

Having said that, it cannot be ignored that Syria pursues its own agenda through Lebanese channels with stubborn energy, and its approach is irregular and at times aggressive. While Syria does what it deems to be necessary to advance its interests and regional standing, the same cannot be said for Lebanon; hence the imbalance.

One of Lebanon's critical weaknesses is its political class; the endless bickering between leaders and the short-sighted vision that makes them focus on current events and unimportant details. This is especially true for those representatives that go hat in hand to ask for foreign interference: they usually want leverage in internecine squabbles, although there are exceptions. The same people could stop listening to the whispers, but remain concerned about losing political clout . Fear of dramatic consequences, on the other hand, makes them shy away from courageous or adventurous decisions. That is precisely why strengthening the foundation of the state is no longer merely rhetoric suitable for primetime talk shows. It is a political and security priority.

"Regionalize instead of internationalize every aspect of local and regional disagreements and strife"
"Regionalize instead of internationalize every aspect of local and regional disagreements and strife"
Due to Hezbollah Iran, Syria, Israel, the United States and other states find themselves in the same pot, although not all on the same side. Despite the ideology inspired by the Islamic Revolution that the ruling party follows, and the conflict of 2006, or the events of May 7th and 8th 2008, there are solutions to integrate Hezbollah's army into the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Yet Hezbollah has not the will to do it. Who in their position would give up such a strategic asset without guarantees in a climate where all are insecure? No-one would. That is the case today and for the medium term. However, it isn't reasonable to categorically dismiss a change of heart in the long run. The people that support and are part of Hezbollah are Lebanese; that could make all the difference. If not, the problem may run deeper than Hezbollah's arms and may be structural: sections of the population within one state feeling and acting as though disconnected from one another.

Unless a new and bloodier civil war is on the way, broader and firmer understanding is the only step left to recognition that the situation can be improved should present circumstances be changed. Such change will come whether some like it or not, so why not move ahead and be the catalyst of the process? Are traditional leaders willing and able to innovate? For some their power base could depend on precisely their capability to leave conventional thinking behind.

A solid foundation requires reciprocal trust between local players. Only like this can the project for a state viable not only on paper be slowly but steadily implemented, to work on borders with both Syria and Israel (i.e. Shebaa Farms which at times is Syrian territory and at times Lebanese), and decide a common, centralized, defence strategy. Determining who friends and enemies are is a delicate and laborious activity for a country that hasn't yet an official single version of recent history.

The international community must also determine what they are going to do with Iran, how to treat strained Arab-Israeli relations, and their medium to long term strategy towards Lebanon. For the latter, it would be a step forward to have Lebanon declare its neutrality. Instead of being a convenient playground for everyone to settle accounts, Lebanon would become the place where negotiations and mediations take place. Furthermore, it is not for Lebanon to fight for the causes of all Arabs and Muslims. Let each fight their own battle. Extremely demanding tasks on many fronts require a multi-layered approach.

Iran and Syria

It seems the focus has shifted from the Middle East, where President Obama's administration has not advanced the Israeli-Palestinian or the Arab-Israeli peace processes much. Iraq is still trapped in violence, Iran refuses to put the brakes on its civilian nuclear program, and given time may further develop that technology to produce nuclear weapons. The Afghanistan-Pakistan dossier remains open. The United States appear not to be capable of trying new approaches or adopting less conformist strategies towards achieving its objectives.

Iran is a spider's web, made all the more complicated by recent demonstrations and the rising of the unclearly defined but certainly noteworthy Green movement.

Will Israel attack facilities in Iran? This is one of the options advanced, but the consequences will not be cheap. If the Iraq War taught world leaders any lessons, they should have understood that plans crafted from without don't match the challenges within. Moreover, military action will not stop Iran from pursuing the same path some years down the road. Balancing the costs against likely results, this is at best a 'postponement solution', and that is no solution at all.

The very fact Iran says it is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power has given it a much improved regional standing. That is its primary goal.

Let's imagine Iran completes the process. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) means that should Iran use its nuclear capability, the other side (if nuclear armed) would retaliate. To make it less attractive for Iran to engage in such hazardous activity, the other side would have allies and they too would react. What does Iran stand to win at the end of the day? Unless its whole regime is suicidal, containment works between state actors.

During the Gaza - Israeli conflict, the Arab states and Iran ran a massive media campaign against Israel. They went as far as producing a long list (thousands, the Tehran regime claimed) of would-be martyrs for Palestine. The resolution? There was a fatwa (religious edict) issued forbidding people to leave Iran for the purpose of becoming martyrs. Perception counts more than reality.

Detaching Syria from Iran is not achievable, at least not in today's context. Assuming Syria harbours an honest and deeply hidden wish to abandon Iran, what are the incentives? It is a thought well worth debating.

It may be more reasonable to have Syria playing in the middle. Syria has not left the Arab fold; it needs the international community; and its strategic and defensive partnership with Iran has worked against all odds since it was forged in 1979. This combination factors calls for a different strategy. When players are out of their comfort zone they are compelled to become resourceful. That is true for both East and West.

The late February meeting in Damascus between President Bashar Asad, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and President Ahmadinejad, although of unknown content, was meant to provide the world with the image of a strong partnership. That is not to say there aren't any differences. The timing is interesting: it came at a time when the United States seem to be reviewing past conduct towards Damascus, when international players went to great lengths in order to generate solutions to Iran's regional ambitions, and when the Lebanese parties were in preparations to resume national dialog over Hezbollah's policy towards peace and war and the fact that it seeks to maintain a monopoly over these decisions. Was the meeting supposed to defy the West? To actually go beyond posturing, these leaders should have decided to leave the defensive line and move onto the offensive, for example attacking Israel on two fronts and attacking American interests in the region. Time will reveal more about the essence of the get-together but it would have been foolish as anything other than a PR stunt. This meeting demonstrated even more political clout by the presence of Khaled Meshal, Hamas's Damascus-based political bureau chief.

That said, this is the time to pursue creative, but not necessarily riskier, engagement with both Syria and Iran; or to work on a comprehensive post-status quo policy. Otherwise it is like walking on an old rope 50 meters above the ground without a safety net. It does not look that high, but falling down is not pretty.

Syria and Turkey

Syria's closeness to Turkey is part of its redesigned foreign policy that points East.

The free-visa policy, coupled with the Zero Problem Neighborhood policy of Turkey's Justice and Development party (AKP), has already borne interesting results. Turkey's increasing prominence as a trustworthy broker and key international player is a sign of shifting regional centers of power.

Did Turkey save Syria from isolation? I would not go that far, but clearly the agreements signed between the two states helped not only the Syrian economy, in dire need of capital influx, but also Syria's status in the region.

The Arab and Muslim states complain - and Syria is no different - that the United States goes out of its way to make sure Israel benefits most from any agreement, whether temporary or not, and that Arab and Muslim grievances always get a third and fourth place.

Turkey is in NATO, is a close ally to the U.S. and Israel, and is a mediator in the Syrian-Israeli talks. When it used tough language about Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, it was a cue that Ankara not only dares to say what others usually refrain from, but that Turkey, because of its relationship with Israel, can play a constructive role in the Arab - Israeli negotiations.

Some analysts on both sides of the Atlantic seem believe that Turkey and Israel could become estranged to the point of no return. However, this is improbable in the near future. At the end of the day, both states have national interests at the top of their respective agendas, while other issues fall into second place.

Egypt - Hamas - Syria

"This meeting in Damascus demonstrated even more political clout by the presence of Khaled Meshal, Hamas's Damascus-based political bureau chief"
"This meeting in Damascus demonstrated even more political clout by the presence of Khaled Meshal, Hamas's Damascus-based political bureau chief"
Can Hamas become mainstream? Nothing is certain, but it may be possible by balancing pressure and rewards in three areas: local, regional and international. It appears a long, daunting process however

In the beginning Hamas's primary aim was armed resistance. When they decided to be part of the political game, they had to resort to a discourse that included elements of economic, educational and development reforms. This was a move away from resistance, which for some brings honour in addition to destruction and suffering. They were not skilled at it but luckily for them the people of Gaza were sick and tired of Fatah's incompetence.

Hamas went through the electoral process and received popular legitimacy. Their win brought a new set of priorities and responsibilities. Being outcast a second later did not make it possible for the transition from a radical attitude to a more pragmatic outlook to take place.

From total war against Israel, Hamas started to discuss marginal engagement and truce. It stopped sending suicide bombers into Israel and since the Cast Lead operation it has enforced a near complete rocket ceasefire - except for the recent rocket attack, which killed one person In Israel and which triggered an Israeli airforce strike against installations in the Gaza-Strip. There is a chance Hamas would not stop here if offered a solid basis for dialog.

Admittedly, is not easy for the U.S., Israel or the Europeans to involve Hamas in constructive talks. An engagement, even an informal one, would bring new challenges for Hamas too. There are smaller, marginal Islamic groups more extreme in both speech and action. Maintaining equilibrium within the Islamist movement is problematic at times for Hamas.

Inter-Palestinian reconciliation ranks high on the regional agenda.

Moving forward with the Israeli - Palestinian and Israeli - Arab peace processes would be easier if conducted simultaneously, but Fatah and Hamas have to come to an agreement first. This is easier said than done: Fatah is used to having the upper hand. The West has invested billions in Fatah but the people of Gaza voted against them. That says a lot about their administrative track record. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are in the process of rejuvenation and self-reformation, objectives worth applauding if realised.

The one million dollar question: is Fatah willing to accept a partner in governing? Rapprochement is primarily about this. The signs thus far are not encouraging.

The Palestinian reconciliation dossier is in the hands of Egypt, supported by several other states.

President Mubarak's regime went too far at times in supporting Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas; it did so while looking at Hamas through Egyptian lenses. Hamas is the offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The logic follows that if Egypt publicly and widely legitimizes Hamas, the Brotherhood in Egypt scores points. I disagree with this perspective. First, the Brotherhood in Egypt is not as powerful as the propaganda tools of the central government would like the rest of the world to believe. Second, the Brotherhood wins points when they say that the regime is corrupt beyond redemption for selling out its Palestinian brothers to the Americans and Zionists. They attack Mubarak's regime with the disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza, the peace agreement signed decades ago with Israel, and the more recent steel wall built by Egypt at the border with Gaza.

Would it not be more advantageous for the Egyptians to have Hamas assume full responsibility for governing Gaza? If that does not work, Hamas has to assume responsibility for the failure; if it does work then all the better for the Palestinians.

Syria too plays a role in the process. It hosts Hamas leadership and over this long period connections have been created and built upon.

Damascus's relationship with Cairo is still tense, but the Saudis are working hard to settle the dispute and create a more united Arab front. It remains to be seen whether they will fail or manage to achieve partial success on both counts.

Conclusions and Recommendations

By and large, 2010 could be the starting point to readjust global foreign policy and security.

On the regional and international levels there is a need to reprioritize objectives but, more so, the means to achieve them.

Starting from the premise that not all problems have a military solution gives a lot of room for appropriate reforms in terms of governance; economic development; and rethinking regional security architecture, transnational cooperation, and multi-partnership.

Bringing more accountability into the political game is a primary concern and notably the one that is unlikely to be ever fully resolved.

The incentives used by the West to keep despots and their entourage indefinitely attached to power would have a greater impact if used at the grassroots level, not to mention an ethical dimension currently lacking.

From conflict prevention to capacity building, strengthening the rule of law and more: all are elements of a complex mechanism that sets in motion a different type of paradigm for societal progressiveness.

This may be wishful thinking, but that does not mean the principles are wrong; just that the players find it less attractive and much less productive to pursue this path.


What the U.S., EU and their allies should work towards:

  • Aid contingent upon tangible reforms, be they social, economic, security or political; reforms with the scope of maintaining a stable regional environment
  • Responsible engagement with mainstream actors, or those close to it, that play a role locally and regionally
  • Encourage inter-regional expansion of economic and security cooperation. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is one venue already in place that can be further developed
  • Put pressure on all parties in the Arab - Israeli peace process to reach a comprehensible conclusion, while offering assistance and support.
  • Regionalize instead of internationalize every aspect of local and regional disagreements and strife

Should the parties not agree to compromise, the cycle of violence will not only continue but has the potential to reach extremes again. With global economic problems, development put in third place, very slow (if existent) political reform, changes in demography (e.g. Iran - with over 60% below 30), natural resources imbalance, millions of refugees, minorities under attack by majorities eager to find a convenient scapegoat for injustices all must endure, and an unjustified arms race; the region has two main options: first, experience a rebirth by rejecting constant antagonism and working hard to advance in areas unrelated to having bigger and newer weaponry; or second, continue to suffer marginal conflicts that may eventually add up to a wider one.