Robin Yassin-Kassab

Syria’s Regional Alliances

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CreativeSyria (see the link on the left) organises a ‘Creative Forum’ where bloggers consider an aspect of Syrian politics. This time the topic is Syria’s regional alliances. My contribution, which I copy below, is on CreativeSyria along with several more opinions. I think Wassim’s is excellent, far more comprehensive than mine. But here’s mine:

For a time the pattern of alliances in the Middle East was organised into monarchical-conservative and republican-nationalist camps. Following the 1991 Kuwait war, there was a realignment which pitted a Saudi-Syrian-Egyptian alliance against a disgraced and battered Baathist Iraq and its perceived allies such as the Jordanian monarchy. Because the Damascus Declaration countries were the three key Arab mashreq states, some pretence at the centrality of Arab alliances in the region was still possible. But since the 2003 invasion and subsequent dismantling of Iraq a new set up seems firmly established. On one side stands Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas; on the other Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the March 14th Lebanese, Mahmoud Abbas, and (implicitly) Israel.

The current regional division is often misleadingly cast in sectarian terms, despite the Syrian regime’s secularism and Hamas being a Sunni organisation. It is much more useful to understand these opposing alliances in terms of those who welcome US-Zionist hegemony underpinned by American military bases, control of resources and the unfettered penetration of regional economies by Western capital, and those who refuse to submit. It is my opinion that Syria is on the right side in this. In any case, she couldn’t be on the other side even if she wanted, unless she surrendered her right to the Golan and her principled opposition to the occupations in Palestine and Iraq.

The exception to this pro- or anti-US pattern is Syria’s deepening alliance with Turkey, a NATO member which hosts an important American military base at Ceyhan and cooperates militarily and economically with Israel. Although Turkey has been moving inevitably away from the West and towards the Arabs since the invasion of Iraq, the strength of the Syrian-Turkish relationship is Bashaar al-Asad’s achievement. Bashaar has calmed tensions over Wilayat Iskenderoon (Hatay) and retreated from his father’s support for Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK. As individuals, the Syrian president and especially his wife are said to be popular with the Turkish public.

Jalal Talabani’s recent criticism of Bashaar for supporting a potential Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of PKK fighters rings hollow, as Talabani encouraged the American invasion of Iraq on the pretext (amongst others) of chasing terrorist groups resident there. Syria’s Iraqi alliances are complex and usually intelligent, seeking to gain influence with all camps in the fractured country but tending to back more nationalist as opposed to separatist currents.

Despite its Arabism, Syria has always been prepared to go against the grain of Arab alliances in what it perceives as the true interests of Arab causes. Syria had the honour of being the only Arab state to support revolutionary Iran against Saddam Hussain’s barbarous Western-backed attack. Despite some conflicts of interest in Iraq, and despite the very different nature of the two regimes, Syria and Iran have preserved and developed their alliance. This is certainly a good thing. Whatever the future of the current clerical regime, Iran will continue to be a regional heavyweight, with a large population of well-educated people, with a crucial geo-strategic position and a wealth of resources. I know from my visit to the country that the alliance with Syria is popular even with opponents of the mullahs.

Syria’s regional allies are well-organised forces which will remain key players in the region indefinitely. Iran is one example of this, and Turkey, with its huge and growing economic power and connections to Europe and central Asia, is another. Hizbullah is by far the best-organised, deeply rooted and efficient political force in Lebanon, and perhaps the second most effective military force in the area after Israel. Indeed, despite Israel’s continuing technological superiority (which translates into a superior ability to kill civilians and destroy infrastructure), and despite the political-sectarian traps limiting its capacities domestically, the fact that Hizbullah frustrated all of Israel’s war aims in the summer of 2006 remains a matter of pivotal importance in the region and the world.

It is interesting that Syria’s regional allies are much more likely than her enemies to be democracies or semi-democracies. Iran is by no means a perfect democracy, but it is more democratic than any Arab state, with elections in which real issues are discussed. Arab visitors to the country will be impressed by the vociferous and often fearless political and religious debates happening in every tea house. Now that Turkey seems to be reconciling some of its worst contradictions – with the emergence of a moderate, modernising Islamist government which is as popular amongst Kurds as it is with ethnic Turks – it is the most democratic state in the region. (Unlike many Western propagandists, I do not consider Israel’s ethno-democracy, in which half the people ruled over by Israel are disenfranchised, to be ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’) Hizbullah has a clear democratic mandate, as does Hamas.

Syria itself, while usually tolerant in sectarian and ethnic terms, continues to suppress pluralist politics and democratic debate. This does not mean, however, that public opinion counts for nothing in Syria. In fact, unlike the US-backed Arab states, Syria is beholden to public opinion for its legitimacy and long term survival. It is therefore no accident that its regional allies tend to be democratic forces.

In terms of Syria’s relationships with ‘great powers,’ not much can be done while America continues to pursue its unrelenting pro-Israel bias, and while most of Europe trails behind America. There are, however, steadily expanding trade and military ties with Russia and China, and these ties are sustainable because both of these states seek to erode American dominance in the medium to long term. America remains by far the greatest world power, but it is also in constant decline.

Syria has a great deal of work to do domestically on human rights, corruption, and the economy. If some branch or other of the regime was responsible for the Hariri assassination, they made a colossal and unforgivable blunder (I can’t believe Syria is responsible for the string of assassinations since then). But in the field of its regional alliances, Syria is on the right track.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 3, 2007 at 11:56 am

One Response

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  1. Sorry dear Qunfuz I haven’t been very active on the comments side. Thanks for your comments on my article and it means much to me that you think highly of it. I think we share the same analysis of what is happening at the moment though it was interesting to see that many of the comments sadly did not discuss these issues. In fact, hardly anyone mentioned the analysis of what is happening and instead we got sidetracked on whatever issue they wanted the article to mean in their reading. That’s quite disillusioning actually…


    November 12, 2007 at 11:02 am

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