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


The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring

The Muslim Brotherhood (for the Arabic al-Ihwan ul-Muslimuuna) through its history since the establishment in 1928 has demonstrated the high degree of adaption to the changing surrounding by revision of its tactical positions though being true to the basic ideas developed by its founder Egyptian theological intellectual Hassan al-Banna. Despite the changing rhetoric of the members from the Muslim Brotherhood the cornerstones of the its ideology have been always the same. As Hussein al-Banna formulated it, the Brotherhood is a genuinely Islamic movement inspired by the desire for the establishment truly Islamic society. This has always been seen possible by the following three different ways. The first one presupposed the struggle against the unwanted governments or external forces by the military means. The strategy of the open conflict with the existing government had been long used by the radically minded members of the Muslim Brotherhood, however this tactic didn’t prove to be fruitful in the era of the Abdel Nasser's strong regime. Instead of the resistance to the regime established after the Egypt's independence the Brotherhood focused its attention on the another two methods of the gaining its ideological goals, notably political participation and the social activity in the poor and uneducated population[1]. The first was doomed to be practically fruitful in the political framework of the post-Nasser's regime, however in the 1970-1980's the state loosened its grip following the political liberalization and the MB got the chance to challenge the system by political means that in fact led to new oppression in the first years of Mubarak's presidency.

So only the social engagement and work with people became the only possible chance to propagate the ideas of the movement what therewith was corresponding to the al-Banna's view on the BM as a social movement. And though it was forbidden in the constitution to form political parties on the basis of the religion or ethnicity the MB could easily nominated own members as the independent candidates (the result of this strategy can be clearly demonstrated by the results of 2005 elections when the MB's "independent" members could gain almost 20% of votes) and even form a coalition with other smaller parties like liberal Waqd-party under the tolerable oversight of the government.

The way how the MB has been evolving all these years shows the influence of the established political conditions in Egypt. Though the confessional party were prohibited the MB managed to push through its members in the parliament. Despite the fact that the MB has long been obscure in its intentions, since there was not clear how exactly the MB wants from the government and the politics at large and the more interesting how this movement wants to achieve its goals, it was at the same time clear that the mainstream of the MB was always true to the ideas of al-Banna on the establishment of the Islamic state following the gradual implementation of Sharia. It seems that vagueness and the universal character of its program enabled the MB on the one hand to survive in the anti-Islamist surrounding and on the other hand to attract as more supporters as possible. The dawa or the spreading of Islamic ideas in the society and thereby social work with the deprived people was the domain where  the MB was successfully gaining points on the state's losses. The education, medicine or employment were spheres where the MB got its support, and its work has long been seen positive even by the government due to its inability (and inefficiency) to provide these services.

Before the upheavals in January 2011 the MB had a well organized infrastructure throughout the country what made the movement the most influential political force after the Mubarak's resignation. Though the core of masses on the anti-governmental demonstrations was made up by the youth and there weren't any pro-Islamic slogans during the revolution (what has let to the presumption that the islamist have no power or that they are not leaders of this social uprising), the MB was an active participator in these events. Being one of the beneficiaries of the January revolution the BM tries to use the fruits of the new situation as much effective as possible. The movement has already claimed it intention not to run for the presidency (although there were attempts by its former members to do that) what proves the fact that in the future political system the post of the president (discredited by the Mubarak's regime) is going to be less influential. Though the ongoing debates within the movement on the set of issues like the status of the Copts, the necessity to participate in the Egypt's politics and the further development of the MB demonstrates the serious division between its members, especially tactical disagreement between the older generations preferring the nonparticipation of the MB in the political life and the younger (students of the 1970's) one who see the participation in the politics and the interaction with other political parties as a way to achieve the movement's conceptual goals[2]. Nevertheless, the announced plan of the BM to seek 45-50% of the seats in the future parliament can be interpreted as a unwillingness of the BM to share the inevitable mistakes and failures of the future government that in perspective can bring additional points to the islamist movement. Another interesting point to mention is that the more the MB was involved into the politics during the authoritarian regime the clearer (and more moderate) became its approaches to such issues as women and the religious minorities, but it will not necessary be the same trend of the evolution under the current circumstances, when the MB is regarded as the best organized political force in Egypt.

Concerning the perspectives of the political development in Egypt and the role of the MB in it could be said that being a very adaptive social force the future of this movement will be fashioned primarily by the slow evolution to the moderate Islamist party, however it must be an issue of further discussions whether this evolution is possible as the unfriendly conditions where the MB has emerged as the social political force with a broad moderate agenda have changed into the extremely favorable ones when there is no political force on the horizon capable of the competition with the MB. Moreover, the MB will definitely need to prove its moderate consciousness by introducing more distinct program and implementing into it missing issues on women and religious minorities as well. If the MB will succeed in the holding powers in Egypt in will have effect on the regional relations, the MB attention (or critic?) will definitely be directed on the Jordan and Syria, where its sister(brother?)-movements are restricted (and even suppressed - Hams 1982 in Syria) in their social and political engagement. However anti western rhetoric on such issues as Palestine will have its place in the MB's political activity, although there is a reason for the western governments to deal with the MB. Since its position are strong in the traditionally Muslim society the radical Islamist will unlikely have support in Egypt among electorate, thus making the MB important player in the War on Terrorism[3].

[1] http://www.kas.de/wf/de/33.22023
[2] Israel Elad Altman // Strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement 1928-2007 // Research Monographs on the Muslim World Series №2, Paper №2, January, 2009 // Hudson Institute
[3] Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2007) p.108


The reaction of the Russian scientific and political circles on the uprisings in the Arab countries 2011

The analysis of the news delivered by the main Russian news agencies during the events called now “the Arab Spring” may demonstrate the specific perception of the developments in the Arab world by the scientific and political circles in Russia. The revolts and uprisings in the different corners of the so called Arab world not only stimulated rethinking the approaches in the foreign policy in the Middle East and Northern Africa but uppermost made observers to project the scenario of the revolution onto the domestic political landscape. Due to similarities in the social conditions between Russia and countries undergone the political instability and the resembling political regimes there was the quite appeal to implement more democratic principles in the country.

However, the brief look onto the earliest reaction of the news agencies suggests that although among the reasons for the revolts in Tunis were named social and economic conditions in the society and the corruption of the president’s clan, the revolts and the fall of the long ruling regime of Ben Ali were seen as being masterminded by the USA and its western allies conducting neocolonial politics in the region. Even though it took quite a long time for the news observers, especially after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, the faithful ally of the USA, to accept the natural and internally conditioned character of the risings. The more serious political observers saw in the large-scale political changes in the region and the late reaction of the USA concerning the support of pro-democratic (or at least anti governmental political movements) the failed Middle East foreign policy of the United States.

One the main discussions in the political circles in the country caused by the Arab spring and fall of the several regimes, that had long been reliable economic partners of Russia (arms trade, building, oil-gas-cooperation) was focused on the current approach of the new post-Soviet Russia not only towards the Middle East and Northern Africa, but also more globally on the role of the country in the emerging multipolar world. The first camp within the Russia political establishment was presented by the current president Dmitry Medvedev that enjoys a reputation of the liberally-minded politician in the western countries. The presidents unites the people who consider Russia as a tightly linked to the western democracies country. It explains why president didn’t put a veto on the resolution 1973 in the UN Security Council.

Medvedev has indicated his support for the concept of humanitarian interventions but that conducted in the frames of the clearly defined and sanctioned by the UN resolution. The observers see reasons for Medvedev’s backing of the Resolution #1973 in the fact that the same concept was used during the conflict with Georgia in August 2008. The humanitarian intervention belongs to the arsenal of Russian foreign policy, especially in towards its sphere of influence in the former USSR republics.

Another camp is constituted by the former president and the current prime-minister Vladimir Putin and his supporters impelled by a feeling of nationalism and nostalgia for the Soviet times. Having much from the Soviet mentality this part of the political establishment sees Russia as a not only regional but effective global player in the world politics. The membership in the Security Council is regarded as one of the few mechanisms that could be used for continuation of the rivalry with the west. The sharp criticism of the prime-minister over the military operation in Libya (Putin has described actions of the NATO in this country as “a new crusade”) has demonstrated that there aspirations for Russia to be more engaged in the world affairs.

The more moderate circles, especially in the ministry of foreign affairs, have defined the necessity for making non-confrontational politics in the world and for the use the experience of the past generations of the Soviet diplomats in the Middle East but without its ideological component.

The events in the Middle East have also caused discussions among the political observers over question where scenario happened in Egypt or Tunis may be repeated in Russia. Many commentators were emphasized the striking resemblances not only in economic sphere but also in relation to the political regimes, the state of democracy and democratic procedures in the country. Although it is clear that possibility of uprisings in Russia is extremely small approaching to zero, the fact that there were discussions made clear that political regimes in the oil-rich countries later or sooner face the problem of legitimacy. Event though these discussions were just a part of the more broad process of the rethinking of the Russian political future.

Another interesting point made during the analysis of the news reports was that in the light of the events in the Middle East significant portion of the attention in the press was devoted to the Central Asia – region seen as a sphere of the Russian influence. The developments in the former Soviet republics have long been crucially important for Russia, mainly because its historical relationships with this region. After the emerging more or less clearer image of the events in the Middle East and the reasons for uprisings many researchers familiar to the central Asian region started examining whether the same revolts are possible in the republics, where people also suffer from poverty under the authoritarian rule. The majority of the observers agreed that it is unlikely.

After the beginning  of the upheavals in Tunis the leitmotiv of the first reviews and analytical papers was the same as it was during so called “orange revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 when after contested elections and the victory of the pro-russian candidate Mr.V.Yanukovich oppositional parties stroke a deal and started campaign for the recount that finally resulted in the re-elections that let another candidate Mr.V.Yushenko (that is regarded in Russia as a pro-western politician) to beat the almost president. In Russia events in the Arab world and especially the operation of the NATO in Libya have been associated with the NATO’s humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1999.

To sum up, the most distinguishing feature during the delivering of the news about the developments in the Arab world was that formulated in analytical papers reasons for the revolutions and the social-economic conditions in these countries were compared with those in Russia that demonstrates the concentrated attention of the circles not on the foreign issues but mainly on the domestic politics. 


The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf

The GCC initially created in 1981, just 2 years after the Islamic revolution in Iran when the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown. The reason for creation of the common intergovernmental organization was actually the fears in the Gulf monarchies of the possible revolts within their own countries, where the Shia-muslims made up from 10% (in Saudi-Arabia) to 75% (in Bahrain) of the total population. The Shia-muslims have long been seen as a base for future Islamic revolution, the concept of which the new Iranian regime adopted in its foreign policy as an instrument that allowed to broaden its sphere of influence on the region by delegitimizing the monarchies under the banner of the establishment the just system of rule based on true (Shia) values of Islam.

Already at the beginning the two main areas of cooperation were defined. The proclaimed economic cooperation between the Gulf states with obviously same oil-exporting economies was already then seen as a marginal field of work within the GCC. However, since its establishment the GCC has involved from mere the free-trade agreement to the customs-union and there is now the implementation of the common currency in the agenda, although differences within the GCC hamper this process[1]. The Council deepens economic ties with such regional player as Turkey[2] and the more influential China.  

Much more interesting was another domain of cooperation, defence. As it was initially formulated the main objective of the GCC in matters of defence was actually cooperation against any possible outside threat in the region, primarily Iran, that is still perceived by the GCC as a main destabilizing factor in the Gulf. It explains why the GCC provided financial support to Iraq during the War of 1980-1988. Despite its declarations of readiness for fight against external aggression, the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait clearly showed the disability of the GCC to defend its own territory[3]. After the establishment anti-American regime in Iran and the active engagement of the USA in the Middle East in Afghanistan and Iraq the GCC has obtained greater significance in the eyes of the American policy-makers that would like to see Saudi-Arabia (the core country in the GCC[4]) as a counterbalance for Iran and a stabilizing factor in the region as whole.

After inviting foreign troops to fight Iraq and start of the Saudi-American cooperation in the region the necessity of having developed system of defence within the GCC became less acute. Instead, the Gulf-countries have focused their attempts on the building of the effective force structure that could fight internal threat coming from the Shia-comminites in the Gulf-monarchies. The cooperation of the Gulf states in this area demonstrates the nature of the Council. It is the intergovernmental mechanism created by the monarchies in order to safeguard[5] their regimes existing in the highly unstable surrounding[6] by mutual financial and first of all military support. The ongoing negations over the possible accession such countries as Morocco and Jordan with their monarchial system of governments show the growing need inside the GCC for more sources that might legitimize its own systems of rule.