This was written six months ago and recently published in Political Insight.
A sigh of relief blew across Syria when the Bush administration was retired. Bush had backed Israel’s reoccupation of West Bank cities, described Ariel ‘the Bulldozer’ Sharon as “a man of peace”, given Syria two million Iraqi refugees and an inflation crisis, and blamed Syria for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Veiled American threats of “regime change” scared the Syrian people – who observed the blood rushing from neighbouring Iraq – almost as much as they scared the regime itself.
Obama’s re-engagement signalled an end to the days of considering Syria – in the predatorial neo-con phrase – “low-hanging fruit”, but American overtures have remained cautious, the new administration’s policy severely limited by its commitments to Israel and the domestic Israel lobby. Obama nominated Robert Ford as the first American ambassador to Damascus in five years, but the appointment has since been blocked by the Senate. In May, Obama renewed Bush-era sanctions, citing Syria’s “continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs,” which, “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
So not much has changed. The neoconservative language is still in place, the same elision of distance between American and Israeli interests, and between anti-occupation militias and al-Qa’ida-style terrorists, plus a flat refusal to understand that the countries really under unusual and extraordinary threat of attack are Syria, Lebanon, and – Netanyahu’s “new Amalek” – Iran.
It is clear to Syria that the US is both unwilling and unable to deliver an Arab-Israeli settlement which would fulfill its minimum demand – the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 (creating 100,000 refugees) and annexed in 1981 (a move condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 497). Any concession on the well-watered Golan would be experienced as a betrayal by the Syrian people. Former President Hafez al-Asad dragged a promise of full Israeli withdrawal from Yitzhak Rabin, but all subsequent Israeli prime ministers have reneged on the “Rabin Pledge.” Furthermore, the “just and comprehensive peace” envisaged as a “strategic option” by Hafez al-Asad in 1991 is no longer on offer. Observers of the calibre of John Mearsheimer believe that it’s now far too late for a viable two-state solution in Israel-Palestine.
Obama’s new peacemaking tack may involve public snubs of the Israeli right, but it doesn’t extend to enforcing UN Resolution 497, (or 242 or 191 for that matter). Obama will not apply the real pressure needed to nudge Israel into decolonisation of the West Bank. He will not stop the billions of dollars of direct military aid, loan guarantees and technology transfers, nor the flow of private Zionist cash.
In April Obama adopted as truth highly suspect Israeli allegations of a Syrian Scud missile transfer to Lebanon’s Hizbullah. The charge, denied in Damascus and Beirut and by the UN, provided the Arabs another example of American double standards. Aside from the improbability of the Scud claim (these are weapons too cumbersome for Hizbullah’s style of warfare), it stank of hypocrisy. The US is currently selling F35 fighter planes to Israel, the most advanced of its own fleet.
Without a change in the balance of power, it seems impossible that Syria will reclaim the Golan. But the region is changing, and Syria is diversifying its options.
In Istanbul on May 9th Bashaar al-Asad reaffirmed Syria’s willingness to resume indirect peace talks with Israel, mediated by Turkey. The bait is there if anyone wants to bite. Meanwhile Syria is working on relations with its ‘Northern Alliance’: Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
The superficially unlikely alliance of secular-nationalist Syria and Islamist Iran is longstanding and unwavering, and is of great political, economic and military value to Syria. Al-Asad, like Turkish prime minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, had hoped to act as a bridge between Iran and the Obama administration. Such hopes have evaporated, and regional security deteriorates a notch further with each Israeli threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear programme, or re-destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure, or unseat the Asad regime.
In a February Damascus summit, al-Asad, Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared a common military front in the event of an Israeli attack on any of their countries. Nasrallah’s rare public appearance gave bite to the proceedings. Known – almost uniquely among Arab leaders – for keeping his word, Nasrallah had promised a new military doctrine a few weeks earlier:
“If you strike martyr Rafiq al-Hariri’s international airport in Beirut, we’ll strike your Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. If you hit our ports, we’ll hit your ports. If you attack our refineries or factories, we’ll bomb your refineries and factories.”
For the US and Israel, Hizbullah is no more than a terrorist organisation, despite the fact that it concentrates its fire on military targets far more effectively than Israel (in the 2006 war, Hizbullah killed 43 civilians and 121 soldiers; Israel killed 1190 civilians and 250 soldiers). The Party of God – which runs construction, welfare and media projects as well as an armed wing – is wildly popular amongst the Shia, Lebanon’s largest sect, and at any moment has the support of at least half the country as a whole (elections under Lebanon’s skewed sectarian system do not always reflect this fact). And Hizbullah is dear to most Arabs, because its few thousand fighters drawn from the downtrodden have done what the Arab states could not, for all their emergency laws and massive military budgets, for all their fruitless embrace of the US-sponsored peace process: they beat back, then in 2000 ended Israel’s 22-year occupation of Lebanon. When Hizbullah held its own against Israel’s 2006 onslaught it proved its evolution from shadowy militia to guerrilla force to a semi-conventional army able to keep territory. For all the current rumours of war, it may be that a balance of terror has already been achieved on the Lebanese border, that Israel may be contained.
A step back from Syria’s frontline alliances stands its spectacularly improved relationship with Turkey. Under new, upwardly-mobile, Islamist-democrat direction, Turkey is investing heavily in Syria, Iraq and Iran, waiving visas and building railways in the interests of trade and tourism, publically supporting Iran’s nuclear programme while condemning Israel’s siege of Gaza. Turkey, of course, with NATO membership and a flourishing economy, is a weight-bearing nation. An immediate consequence of its realignement is that the Resistance Front – ‘Moderate State’ duality which held sway in the region a few years ago has been consigned to history’s dust-heap. The increasing irrelevance of such US-client regimes as Egypt and Saudi Arabia is what prompted General Petraeus’s statement that “Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardising US standing in the region.”
And there’s a jaded but resurgent superpower in the picture too. In the first visit to Syria by a Russian leader since the 1917 Revolution, this month President Medvedev discussed oil, gas, and possibly nuclear cooperation. Russia is selling Damascus warplanes, air defence systems and anti-tank weapons, and developing the port of Tartus to receive the Russian fleet.
“Washington’s failure to realign relations with Iran and Syria dooms it to repeat its past,” writes Syria analyst Joshua Landis, warning of a new cold war. Bashaar al-Asad agrees, telling La Republica, “The Russians never believed the Cold War ended. Neither did we. It only changed shape. It has evolved with time. Russia is reasserting itself. And the Cold War is just a natural reaction to the attempt by America to dominate the world.”
But the current situation is too multipolar for an old-style cold war. This time Syria isn’t compelled to choose between two sponsors. Instead it meets a world of independent actors – Iran, Turkey, Russia, China, even Brazil. The big story here is the emergence of new alliances as the global power balance shifts.