Tuesday, 19 October 2010


Syria’s Diversified Options

This was written six months ago and recently published in Political


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

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.

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