Examining the complexities of relations between Syria and the US

George W. Bush’s tour of the Middle East last month was reminiscent of old-style imperialism, when emperors would occasionally tour their vassal states to assert their overlordship and remind their local underlings of their place. George W. Bush concluded his Middle East tour last month by telling Syria, Iran and their allies to “end their interference” in Lebanese politics. This came just a few days after the US president sent “a clear message to the Syrians –” that you will continue to be isolated, you will continue to be viewed as a nation that is thwarting the will of the Lebanese people.” But when all the conceited and patronizing rhetoric is discounted, Bush’s stand on Lebanon boils down to yet another smug exercise in double standards. For he also called on countries in the region to support the pro-western government of Lebanese prime minister Fouad al-Siniora, which for more than a year has been involved in a political conflict with the Hizbullah-led opposition.

Bush’s war of words against Syria put to rest speculation about a possible rapprochement between Damascus and Washington. The two countries had seemed to be on the road to reconciliation when Syria attended the conference in Annapolis last November. Yet Washington’s vision for a solution for the Israeli-Arab conflict proposed at Annapolis seems to have damped any expectations in Damascus from Bush’s latest Middle East subterfuge. Syria agreed to attend the Annapolis conference after receiving assurances that the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights would be on the agenda. But America’s proposals at the conference included explicit recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” by every member of the Arab League. In return for Syria’s recognition of Israel, the US would only try to revive the moribund Syria-Israel track of the Middle Ease “peace process” by facilitating direct talks between the two sides over the Golan Heights. This falls well short of meeting Syria’s core demand of a comprehensive settlement that involves a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the lines of June 4, 1967, which would also restore Syria’s water rights over Lake Tiberias and the River Jordan.

Syria has always had uneasy dealings with the US. Despite maintaining diplomatic relations, bilateral ties have always been shaky, with periodic flare-ups. Unreasonable demands, intimidation, threats and outright enmity have often characterized Washington’s behaviour towards Damascus. Hostility between the two reached its peak after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when they fought a proxy war in Lebanon and came close to engaging in a direct military confrontation. Syria’s admission to the US-led anti-Iraq coalition that expelled Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait in 1991 brought only a brief respite to the strained relations between the two. George Bush Senior, the US president at the time, rewarded the then Syrian president, the late Hafiz al-Assad, by giving him a free hand in Lebanon, thus making Damascus the unrivalled power-broker in the country. However, Syria’s initiation into the US-sponsored Middle East peace process, which kicked off with the Madrid peace conference in 1991, proved futile. Talks continued for nearly five years, only to reach a dead end in March 1996 because of Israel’s refusal to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders in the Golan. Another round of American-sponsored talks started in Shepherdstown in the US in January 2000, in which the Syrians reportedly showed unusual willingness to give in on a number of crucial issues, including security arrangements and normal diplomatic relations with Israel, but came to naught because of then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s reluctance to commit himself to a full withdrawal from the Golan.

Syria’s sense of unease over the US’s heavy-handedness and lack of goodwill increased immediately after September 2001, when the “with us or against us” attitude became the dominant element of the US government’s rhetoric and foreign policy. Syria’s cooperation with the US-led “war on terrorism” did not go beyond al-Qa’ida. In 2002 Syria allowed a Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) team to investigate Syrian suspects. The US has publicly acknowledged that intelligence provided by Syria on al-Qa’ida “has helped save American lives,” to use the words of a US state department document dated September 23, 2002. It is believed that Damascus’s cooperation against al-Qa’ida prompted Bush to exclude Syria from his “axis of evil” State of the Union speech in January 2002.

But Syria’s defiance of the US’s demands to take measures to rein in the Lebanese Hizbullah and Palestinian resistance groups, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Islamic Jihad, left deep rifts in relations between the two . Damascus did not see these groups through the same lenses as al-Qa’ida, and continued to support them despite repeated demands and warnings from the US. Ultimately, Syria’s cooperation against al-Qa’ida was not reciprocated; nor did it succeed in diminishing the US’s implacable opposition to the Assad regime. In fact, Washington continued to exert pressure on Damascus and try to isolate it and curtail its regional influence. If anything, Syrian decision-makers rightly felt that every gesture of cooperation with the US on their part only invited more demands from Washington. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad expressed this feeling in an interview with the London-based, Saudi-owned daily al-Hayat. “It is an American habit not to ask for specific demands, neither in quantity nor in quality,” he said. “Sometimes they are contradictory” (October 7, 2003).

The US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and the subsequent inflammatory cacophony of neo-conservative voices in Washington calling for “regime change” in Damascus or a military strike against Syria, created more friction between the two countries. These dramatic developments came while Bashar, who succeeded his late father Hafiz at the helm of power in June 2000, was still trying to consolidate his rule, prove himself capable of stepping into his father’s shoes, garner political legitimacy, demonstrate his leadership skills, formulate a coherent policy, and establish his authority both domestically and abroad.

Domestically, Bashar started by promising to introduce reforms to break with the repressive order that had been in place for more than a generation. But the new hopes proved short-lived: it soon transpired that Bashar’s concept of political and economic reform was gradualist and incremental, rather than sweeping or radical. He was also incapable of taking on the ruling Ba’ath Party “old guard”, or unwilling to do so, though it controls much of the country’s economy. Hence many intellectuals and reformers who were deluded into believing that Bashar’s commitment to easing Draconian curbs on freedom of expression was genuine ended up in prison after voicing criticism of his government and demanding far-reaching reforms.

Keenly aware of the increasing internal and external pressures it was facing, as well as its economic deficiencies, Syria tried to reduce the risk of becoming the US’s next target by adopting the age-old strategy of wait-and-see. Accordingly, Syria tried to get a breathing space by offering minimal concessions while waiting for events to dissipate the momentum of America’s rampage in the Middle East. For instance, while extraditing some senior Iraqi officials who had fled to Syrian territory, Damascus continued to give refuge to Iraqi Ba’ath Party figures who were involved in directing and financing insurgent groups inside Iraq. While bowing to growing pressure and pulling out its troops from Lebanon after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, it refused to comply with US demands to curb Hizbullah’s armed activities and dismantle its military infrastructure.

In many ways, the current political crisis in Lebanon stems from the US’s heated efforts to use the Lebanon card to pressure Syria on other fronts, such as its alliance with Islamic Iran, support for Palestinian resistance groups, and the Middle East peace process. Having quietly abandoned the options of direct regime change or a military strike against Syria, the US government has been tempted to reorient its policy towards ostracizing Syria within a new regional political structure. Israel’s defeat in the war in July-August 2006 against Lebanon, especially in the face of Hizbullah’s ability to fire rockets deep into Israel, proved that military action to this end is not a fruitful prospect. Exploiting Lebanon’s delicate sectarian relations and the redistribution of power, therefore, became the main element of the US’s new strategy to restructure the regional order.

Despite its significant weaknesses, Syria still possesses vital instruments of regional influence and important allies, such as Iran and Hizbullah. In fact, Syria’s strategy of hunkering down and playing for time has also begun to bear fruit as the US finds itself sinking ever more deeply in Iraq. Recent strong oil-prices have increased Syria’s financial assets and empowered it, because it derives some three quarters of its revenues from exports of oil. Syria has become increasingly assertive in the face of the US’s intrusive military and political presence in the region. There are indications that, having witnessed at first hand the deterrent utility of Hizbullah’s missiles in the face of Israel’s aggression, Syria has increasingly focused its meagre resources on the development and acquisition of medium-range missiles that can hit any target in the Jewish state. Efforts at missile research, development and rocket-engine testing have accelerated over the past decade. There have also been reports of efforts to train special units in tactics of guerrilla warfare.

It is no secret that North Korea and Iran have been providing Syria with assistance to develop its growing arsenal of medium-range, and possibly long-range, surface-to-surface missiles. The mysterious site in the Syrian desert which was bombed by Israeli warplanes on September 6 is most probably a missile facility and not a secret nuclear reactor, as speculations in the western media would have it. Satellite photographs last month showed that Syria has begun rebuilding work at the bombed site. It is likely that the new square-shaped building is a cover for excavation work at the ruins and structures of the original building, rather than anything more sinister.

Syria’s problems with the US stem mainly from Damascus’s refusal to yield to Washington on fundamental issues such as support for resistance groups and close ties with Islamic Iran. This is one area that Syrians of all persuasions –” the ruthless government and the ineffectual opposition, the authoritarian rulers and the oppressed public, the totalitarian state and the downtrodden citizenry, the stolid Old Guard and the fragmented reformers, the repressive security apparatus and the beleaguered civil society –” agree on. So far Bashar Assad’s government has resisted pressure to comply with US injunctions on these issues. It remains to be seen whether it can stay the course if the unlikely prospect materialises of a US-brokered bargain that includes full recovery of the Golan Heights.