2011-07-28

The controversies between Syrian domestic and foreign policies

Current events in Syria can undoubtedly be seen as the result of the inability of the Assad's regime to overcome its imbalances that have been deepening for last 10 years. Although the durability of the regime based on the permanent suppression of internal opposition has enabled the Assad's clan and Alawites minority to rule the country, the methods used by Assad can not provide legitimacy forever.  Nevertheless, despite the inherent instability of the regime, the Syrian ruling elite has demonstrated the skillful use of the tool in its foreign policy. Although Syria has been placed in the unfriendly surrounding where all the possible foes of the regime have much more military power to demolish its troops, the Syrian regime has demonstrated that it can and is able to overcome these strategic shortcomings and disadvantages by deployment other means of influence on the regional affairs.

The developments in the relations between Syria and its neighbors (Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey) reflect the capacity of the regime to balance between the external and internal threats. In comparison to the domestic affairs, Syrian foreign policy has long been shaped to great extend by the public opinion, or at least been largely approved by the people. Even the vehement opposition of the regime appraised its successful foreign policy, despite the hard conditions in relations with such regional players as Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. 

The war 1967 (more) between Arab nations and Israel resulted for Syria in the loss of the strategic territory in the Golan Heights. The defeat of Syria was perceived by the broad masses of people as a national tragedy and the return of the occupied land has become the constant agenda in the foreign policy in Syria[1]. The military solution that had long been accepted as the only means to get the Golan Heights back, was rejected due to the increased cooperation between Israel and USA, the collapse of once united camp of the Arab nations and the end of the USSR's military support as a result of the latter's collapse. 

The Lebanon's place in the Syrian foreign policy can be described as the relations between the core and the periphery of the once existed state of the Greater Syria[2]. The colonial rule by France ended in 1946 resulted in the separation of historically bounded territories, leaving Lebanon outside the Syrian statehood. Nevertheless, the hopes of the possible unification have never faded in the minds of the ruling elite in Syria armed by the new ideology of the pan-Arabism, the center ideological principal of the Syrian Baath party, that came to power in  1963. The developments of the last 50 years in Lebanon has enabled Syria not only directly influence the politics in this country, where the conflicting sectarian groups haven't for long been able to compromise, but also, what was more important for Syria, to exercise pressure on Israel. 

Having limited military capacity in the conflict with Israel, Hafiz Assad found using the help of the radical islamist groups very productive in the rivalry where the enemy has superiority. However, even putting the accent on such a networks and groups engaging in Palestine and Lebanon, the Assad's regime spent huge financial resources on the maintaining its military power and internal security apparatus. 

Huge spending on the army however should be explained solely by the threats of the external nature. The Assad's regime existed due to the successful oppression of the opposition. Among them are the Muslim Brotherhood, that began its political activity in Syria in 1961 following the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. The Brotherhood was undoubtedly the only political force in Assad's Syria capable of challenging the regime, thus it was the  movement who suffered the state's suppression the most. The conflict between religious oriented Brotherhood and the regime, preferring not to resort to the religious agenda due to the strained relations between sectarian groups of population, resulted in 1982 massacre of 10000 people, killed by Hafiz Assad's army.

Cooperation with and support of active militant groups such as Hamas in Gaza Strip or Hizbullah in Lebanon, that have anti-Israel agenda, provided Assad's regime with the effective unconventional means in the conventional war, though not declared Muriel Asseburg (Hg.) Regionale (Neu-)Ordnung im Nahen und Mittleren Osten und die Rolle externer Akteure, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit, S 7, März 2007, Berlin.. Even when there were attempts to stabilize relations with Israel and the agreement on the return of the Golan Heights was about to be reached, neither Hafiz Assad nor his son neglected playing Hamas or Hizbullah's card. Even the relations with Iran were defined by the strategic necessities of both, but not by the cultural and historical closeness. On the other hand, Hafiz Assad was always ready to fight Muslim Brotherhood that though was much more moderate in its rhetoric, was seen however as the major threat to the regime.

More obvious such an approach to the militant groups by the Syrian regime can be demonstrated on the example of the relations between the latter and Iraq. After the beginning of the war waged by the USA in Iraq with the aim to overthrow the Saddam's regime, Syria was accused of the support and sheltering the former members from the Saddam's government. Moreover, with the discovering in 2007 of the so called records Sinjar records[3], that proved the support of the Iraqi insurgency by the Syrian government (or at least by its indirect complicity), regime in Damascus has experienced the feeling of the imminent danger. 

Denying all the accusations, Bashar Assad decided however to cooperate with the USA in the fight against the Iraqi insurgency by sharing intelligence information and tightening the borders, that on the other part could be caused by the increasing number of refugees from Iraq. Nevertheless the fact that Syrian regime, who once decided to supported the recruiting network for Iraqi insurgency[4], finally stops its activity and begins cooperating with the USA after it becomes evident that the latter is about to implement necessary measures against the supporters of the terrorists and after Syria's own radical militants signalize that they are ready to use their guns against the Assad's regime, demonstrates the high adaptability of Damascus being under the pressure.

The capacity of the regime in changing its foreign policy and its methods in accordance to the growing external pressure can be vividly demonstrated be the development of the Syrian-turkish relations during 1990-s and 2000-s. The main issues between the two countries have long been the disputed Hatay province and the activity of the Kurdish PKK, members of which were long sheltered in Syrian border regions not thanks to the efforts of the Syrian government. Syria has been suppressing the Syrian Kurds whereas provided safe heaven for the PKK-fighters. However, after the escalation of the confrontation with Turkey, Syria showed it readiness to sack the terrorist organization. Only after the warming of the Turkish-Syrian relations it became possible to say that Syria stopped using Kurdish card towards Turkey.

After seeing how proficient the Syrian foreign policy was in the last 2 decades in the relations with regional main actors the only question still stays unanswered why by having such a genuine in the foreign policy the regime has failed to maintain the internal stability that resulted in end effect in the open revolts against the Assad's clan?



[1] .Itamar Rabinovich. How to talk and how not to talk to Syria: Assessing the obstacles to and opportunities in a future Israeli-Syrian-American negotiation. Middle East MEMO, №18, May 2010.p.2
[2] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Syrian Foreign Policy under Bashar al-Asad”, Ortadoğu Etütleri, July 2009, Volume 1, No 1, pp. 7-26
[3] Matthew Levitt, Syria's Financial Support for Jihad \\ Syrian Terrorism, Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2010, pp. 39-48
[4] Michael Rubin, Syria's Path to Islamist Terror \\ Syrian Terrorism, Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2010, pp. 27-37

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