If there is a constant in the history of the countries of the Levant, it is the conflict between the aspirations of their inhabitants for freedom, and the realpolitik that has led to the sacrifice of those aspirations to the geostrategic interests of foreign powers. Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798-1801 started a long struggle between France, Britain and Germany over the territory of the declining Ottoman Empire. The greatest trauma, however, came at the end of the first world war. The Arabs had been incited to revolt against the Turks by T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) — and especially by a letter from the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, to Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, promising to create a unified Arab kingdom. They watched powerless as that promise was broken and further betrayed by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided the region between France and Britain, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which declared the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
At first Syria was divided into four states under French administration. After the second world war, it won independence, but the new parliamentary democracy did not last: in 1949 Colonel Husni al-Zaim seized power in the Arab world’s first military coup, assisted by the US embassy and the CIA (1).
This helps to explain the Syrians’ nationalism and deep-rooted suspicion of the manoeuvres of foreign powers. It explains too why Bashar al-Assad’s regime was faced with a huge popular rebellion (initially peaceful and spontaneous like those in Tunisia and Egypt), it tried to justify the brutality of its repression of the rebellion by appealing to anti-imperialist sentiment. This strategy allowed it to retain the support of some (authoritarian) nationalist movements and a small section of the Arab left (2).
Despite all this, the Golan Heights (occupied by Israel since June 1967) have been an oasis of stability and the Israeli-Syrian border has remained remarkably calm for four decades. Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976 — with the approval of the US and the tacit agreement of Israel — to prevent a victory by the so-called “Islamo-progressive” coalition. During the global “war on terror” of the 2000s, Syria was a contractor in the Bush administration’s programme of “extraordinary renditions”. And when the Arab revolutions started, it supported Saudi Arabia’s crushing of the revolution in Bahrain.
Assad’s biggest mistake, as is clear from his interview in the Wall Street Journal on 31 January 2011, has been to think that his foreign policy — support for Lebanon’s Hizbullah (especially during the war of summer 2006) and for Hamas during Israel’s invasion of Gaza (December 2008-January 2009) — would protect him against the revolutionary wave surging through the Arab world. Even if the Syrian people had believed his self-professed anti-imperialism to be real or sincere, it would not have calmed an uprising fired by domestic issues. The socio-economic situation was disastrous: of 300,000 Syrians coming on to the job market each year, only 8,000 were going into employment under a proper contract. Hastily implemented neoliberal reforms had turned public monopolies into private ones, and fostered crony capitalism. The ongoing state of emergency, in force since 1963, had stifled all freedoms, and institutionalised torture had become a way of governing and controlling the people.
Syria’s revolution, when it came, was quickly overtaken by the international power game, and its territory became a theatre for proxy wars. The rival narratives — of a popular revolt, and a regional and international geopolitical conflict — are not mutually exclusive: these narratives coexist, even if the first predominated from March to October 2011 and the second from July 2012.line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Support from Russia
The greatest support for the Assad regime has come from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has gone so far as to use its veto on the UN Security Council three times. Russia had had a strong bilateral relationship with Syria since the 1950s; Syria, unlike Anwar al-Sadat’s Egypt, never cut its ties with the Soviet bloc. This relationship has produced several tens of thousands of bi-nationals, mixed marriages and expatriates, and robust economic relations. In 2010 Russian exports to Syria topped $1.1bn and Russian investment in Syria reached nearly $20bn. Arms sales to Syria are important because they allow Russia to test the reliability of its technology. They also earned Russia $4bn in 2011, though the Syrian government is slow to pay and Moscow often has to renegotiate or write off the debt. The naval base at Tartus, Russia’s only military base in the Mediterranean, is mainly a supply facility and its importance has been somewhat exaggerated.
Like France in the 19th century, Russia is also trying to present itself as the protector of Christians in the Orient. There are nearly a million in Syria (4.6% of the population) (3), and 52% are Greek Orthodox. The new alliance emerging in Russia, between Putin, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and the Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill I, may explain Russia’s concern for the interests of the Orthodox Church in Syria; its hierarchy has close links with the Assad regime. The Kremlin claims it was tricked over Libya in 2011, and that the West used an elastic or even wilfully false interpretation of UN Security Council resolution 1973 to justify its military intervention going beyond the simple “duty to protect” and leading to a regime change.
Russia’s firm stance also stems from Putin’s view of Syria in relation to events in Chechnya: he sees the Arab uprisings as Islamist revolutions that must be stopped before they reach the Caucasus and other Muslim areas of Russia (nearly 15% of Russians are Muslims).line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Alliance with Iran
Iran’s support for the Assad regime is easier to explain: Tehran wants to protect its only Arab ally and keep supply routes to Hizbullah open. The Iranian-Syrian alliance originated in a long-term strategic pact made in 1980, shortly after Iran’s Islamic revolution, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, was isolated and on bad terms with Ba’athist Iraq and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The alliance between Syria and Iran has survived great pressures (especially during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88), and all attempts to drive a wedge between the countries have failed. As soon as the revolution broke out in Syria in March 2011, Iran threw all its weight behind Assad. In January 2013, it granted Syria a $1bn import credit line, in spite of the difficult economic situation created by international sanctions. Tehran also sent senior Revolutionary Guard commanders to Syria, where they joined Hizbullah fighters and Shia militias from Iraq in supporting the Assad regime.
The three main Sunni powers in the region — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are doing everything they can to support the Syrian rebels. After briefly trying to reconcile the interests of Damascus and the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey declared that it wanted to see the Assad regime brought down. The Gulf states are mainly motivated by a wish to thwart Iran, which has become their number one enemy, even if there is a risk that the conflict will become a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia.
Qatar quickly aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, as it had done with their Brothers in Tunisia and Egypt. According to the Financial Times (4), it has already spent $3bn arming the rebels. Saudi Arabia, initially cautious, joined in the Syrian battle a few months later. But its hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood led it instead to support Salafist movements — even though it is wary of groups with links to Al-Qaida after the violence of the past decade. Qatar is backing Syria’s opposition National Coalition, and has imposed Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian from Texas said to have close links with the Brotherhood, as its prime minister. Saudi Arabia is focusing on direct aid, supplied via Jordan, where it has set up a coordination office.
For years, Israel saw Syria as a lesser evil, guaranteeing the security of its border. That view changed after the July 2006 war, when it became apparent that Syrian support had played a decisive role in Hizbullah’s resistance, and there was an escalation of Israel’s anti-Iranian rhetoric. Those who support Israel in the US are divided into two camps: former White House adviser Dennis Ross favours military intervention; academic Daniel Pipes, one of the most unconditionally pro-Israel propagandists, would like the US to support the regime and prolong the conflict. Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy still prefers Assad to those who are trying to overthrow him, and even refers to him as “Israel’s man in Damascus” (5).
Israel’s hesitation is adding to the confusion in Washington where Barack Obama, wary after the lessons of Iraq, is resisting pressure from the influential interventionist lobby. The ideal solution for the US would be for Assad to go, leaving the framework of the regime in place. This is the aim of the new Russian-US initiative and the conference that could take place this month in Geneva. France, having strongly favoured the rebels and even announced the imminent fall of the regime, seems more cautious since the rapprochement between the US and Russia. Perhaps fearing diplomatic isolation, France started to talk of the advantages of a political solution, which it had until recently denigrated or even rejected.
(However, France and the UK were behind the EU decision to allow the arms embargo to lapse.) All this reveals the absence of any kind of planning by the regional and international powers, contradicting the many conspiracy theories about the Middle East. These powers are intent on protecting their own interests, and they have written off the interests of the Syrian people.