Sunday, January 31, 2010

Syria Regains Pivotal Regional, Int'l Role - The Triumph of the 'Course of Resistance'. Part II


by N. Mozes


2nd part of 3


Syria: The Era of the West Is Over; Anti-West Forces Have Triumphed


Syria, for its part, sees the shift in the Western and Arab attitude towards it as a sign that its opponents are weak, and as vindication of its course over the years. Syria also draws confidence from the situation in the region; it sees the U.S. as sinking into a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perceives the resistance forces – Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006, and Hamas in Gaza in 2009 – as having triumphed over Israel and the forces behind it (that is, the U.S.). This has led it to conclude that now is no time to soften its positions and to abandon the principles which, it believes, produced the shift in attitude towards it – that is, its support of the resistance forces and its alliance with Iran. Thus, the West's new openness is actually encouraging Syria to cling to its positions, and even to toughen its stance.


Syria is not shy about discussing this approach publicly and in the presence of Western leaders. Thus, when Assad was asked at a joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann whether the shift in attitude towards Syria was due to a change in Syria's positions, he replied: "What has changed is the [Western] perception of Syria's position... Syria is an important country and no one can prevent it from playing such a role. The difference [from the past] is that there are countries that think that cooperating with Syria will make us change our policy in certain directions. After a while, they discovered that the problems of the [Middle] East cannot be resolved without Syria's cooperation..."[20]


Syria's sense of triumph over the new situation was also evident in Assad's statements during his visit to Iran following the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "...The general circumstances in the region serve the front of resistance and steadfastness. The countries of the West, particularly the U.S., are facing many problems, both domestic and in the [Middle East]. So far, they have achieved nothing in the region, not even in Lebanon..." According to Assad, the Western response to Ahmadinejad's reelection was due to "concern that the serial victories of Iran and Syria will continue for another four years."


During the same visit, the two leaders agreed that "the global situation is an historic opportunity for the peoples of the region," and stressed the need to make the most of it. Also during the visit, Assad predicted that "from now on, the doors of the international community will be open for Iran and Syria more than they have been in the past."[21]

At the Conference of Arab Parties, held November 2009 in Damascus, President Bashar Al-Assad stated: "We have studied history well, prepared the present and determined the future... In the last three years, we have defined our goals with precision: the adversary is the U.S., and the enemy is Israel. In the past, the American administration itself was the enemy, [but] now this equation has changed... We have reached a stage where we believe their proposals are to our benefit... We have succeeded, and [today] we are ruled by a sense of challenge, not of fear..."[22]


Former Lebanese MP Nasser Qandil, who is close to the Syrian regime, summarized the situation in his weekly column in the Syrian daily Teshreen, using less diplomatic terms:

"In the [present] world war, aimed at breaking the strategic Syrian-Iranian alliance, it is the spear of the strategic American-Israeli alliance that has broken. [Now] a new era has begun that will completely reorganize our region, as reflected in the new American [policy] of turning to dialogue with Syria and Iran... The Syrian and Iranian leadership have a profound understanding of the new starting point, which promises a transition from [a situation on which these countries] are leading the resistance to [a situation in which they are] leading a new regional order..."[23] 


Syrian columnist Salim 'Aboud wrote in the daily Al-Thawra: "...Damascus has become a meeting point for leaders and statesmen from all over the world. It has proven that its policy, which is based upon rights and upon a refusal to relinquish [these rights], is the one that can set events [in motion] and place it in an honorable position. This is the policy which has turned [Syria], and continues to turn it, into a pivotal country whose decisions and desires cannot be overlooked."[24]


'Imad Fawzi Shu'eibi, head of the Data and Strategic Studies Center in Damascus, wrote an article in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat in which he outlined Syria's foreign policy and its perception of its role in the region: "...Syria has regained its regional position, and has consolidated [this position] by means of [Hizbullah's] 2006 victory [over Israel] and through a policy of biding its time. Syria has plenty of patience... and this enables it to be a country that assigns roles [to others] and withholds them [from others]. It can say 'yes' and 'no' in its own way. Its 'no' is one that does not [completely] shut the door on regional and international relations, and its 'yes' [is one that] does not open the door to its enemies. This is a policy of half-open doors..."[25]   



Syria is Pursuing a New Regional and International World Order


Based on this sense of self-worth, Syria is now working, along with its allies Iran and Venezuela, to create a new world order involving several blocs of countries, each with equal weight, as an alternative to what it sees as a unipolar order with America as the sole superpower. At the April 2, 2009 Doha Summit, President Al-Assad said: "...The world is currently in a state of crisis which may, despite the difficulty it entails, present us with an opportunity to seek, along with others, a foundation for a new world order... The comprehensive change taking place today is reminiscent of the global reshuffle [of power] that occurred in the middle of the previous century..."[26]


After an April 2009 meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, in a similar vein, "Iran  and Syria must assist one another in creating a new world order...," to which Al-Mu'allem replied, "Syria calls for developing the relations [between the two countries] and for comprehensive cooperation with Iran in all domains."[27] A few days later, Ahmadinejad said, "Iran is willing to play a significant role in running the world..."[28] At a press conference with Assad at the end of his May 2009 visit to Damascus, the Iranian president said: "Alongside the resistance and steadfastness, we must also strive to create a new world order; otherwise new oppressive regimes will emerge..."[29] He added, "The philosophy and order that emerged after World War II have come to the end of their road, and [the West] is unable to offer solutions for the world's problems, since its thinking is based on discrimination and on [undermining] security."[30]


As part of these efforts to establish a new world order, Syria is operating on several levels:



1. The Effort to Implement the "Four Seas Strategy":


This strategy is based on an alliance between Syria, Iran and Turkey, which, these countries hope, will also be joined by Iraq and by the Caucasus countries, so as to form a geographic continuum between four seas: the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. As part of the efforts to expand this alliance, and perhaps also as a sign of Syria's mounting confidence, Syria offered to mediate in the crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Armenia and Turkey.[31]

Explaining the rationale behind this alliance, Assad said: "Syria and Turkey are strategically important countries. They have a significant political role, and they enjoy stability on the security and social [levels]... [Our region] is an important junction for transport, [including the] transport of energy... In addition, there is cooperation between Turkey and Iraq, and beginnings of relations between Turkey and Iran. Good relations are forming between Syria and Iraq, while Iran and Syria [already] have good relations... We are important not [only] in the Middle East. We are at the center of the world, and are bound to become a crucial link for the whole world in terms of investments, transport and the like..."[32]


During his visit to Iran, Assad presented the idea of the "four seas strategy" to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and received his blessing.[33]


It should be noted that Assad's statements regarding the good Syria-Iraq relations predated the outbreak of the crisis between Syria and Iraq following the series of Baghdad bombings in August 2009. However, despite the present tension between the two countries, Syrian, Iranian and Turkish officials continue to regard Iraq as part of the alliance. During his visit to Syria for the first meeting of the Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "The Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council is not just between Turkey and Syria. [Similar councils exist for cooperation] between Syria and Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, and Turkey and Lebanon. When this activity increases, I think this region will become a region of peace..."[34]


A similar hope was expressed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem in a speech to the parliament in which he reviewed Syria's diplomatic achievements in 2009: "...These strategic ties [between Syria and Turkey] are to be a nucleus that will soon be augmented by Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq..."[35]


The creation of the Syria-Iran-Turkey-Iraq alliance is perceived as an expression of Syria's defiance vis-à-vis the current world order, as columnist Muhammad Zarouf wrote in the government daily Al-Ba'th: "...The region needs a strategic force that will put an end to the collapse and the disintegration that is spreading everywhere [in the region]. These allow the international forces to interfere in everything and to subjugate the region to their political will – which is not necessarily compatible with the interests and will of the region's countries and peoples... The aim is to establish a new regional force that will be able to take part in restoring balance to the world order, which suffers from unilateralism and from imbalance, due to the 'unipolar' control [i.e. by the U.S.] over the running of its affairs..."[36]



Syria's rapport with Turkey is a fairly recent development compared to its good relations with Iran. In the past, Syria-Turkey relations were rocky due to Syria's support of the PKK, Turkey's relations with Israel, and conflicts over the distribution of the waters of the Euphrates river and over the Alexandretta region. Tensions mounted to the point that,

in 1998, Turkey deployed forces along its border with Syria, with the aim of forcing the latter to expel PKK leader 'Abdallah Ocalan, who had received political asylum and assistance from Damascus.


In 2003, Syria-Turkish relations began to thaw, as evidenced by Assad's historic visit to Turkey in 2004, which was the first visit to this country by a Syrian president since the end of World War I.


Assad attributed the strategic change in Syria's policy towards Turkey to the U.S. troops' 2003 invasion of Iraq. He said: "Following the war on Iraq in 2003, we saw that the fire was coming closer to us. Thus, we tightened relations [with Turkey] in order to protect ourselves..."[37]


Recent far-reaching developments in Syria-Turkey relations have led to the establishment of the Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, the mutual abolition of visas, joint military maneuvers, and the signing of cooperation agreements in a number of areas, including the military one.


Close relations are in the interests of both countries. Turkey, controlled by Erdogan's Justice and Development (AKP) party, seeks to become closer to the Arab and Islamic world, and to develop into a prominent regional power. Evidence that Turkey sees itself as a regional power comes from statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who said that Turkey is no longer a country that follows others, but has now become a leading country, and that the other Middle East countries respect it for the role that it plays.[38] Turkey's self-perception as a regional leader is also reflected in its readiness to volunteer to mediate in inter-Arab crises – between Syria and Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and Fatah and Hamas – as well as in international conflicts such as Iran's nuclear crisis and the Syria-Israel negotiations.


Likewise, since the AKP, headed by Erdogan, came to power, Turkey has in some instances adopted a policy incompatible with the interests of its former allies, the U.S., and the EU; these include its refusal to permit its territory to be used for launching the attack on Iraq in 2003, and its recognition of the Hamas government in Gaza. It should be noted that within Turkey itself there are critics of this policy, which is perceived as "neo-Ottoman."[39] Erdogan himself has denied pursuing this policy.[40]


For Syria, allying with Turkey gives it numerous advantages: It helps diffuse Syria's sense of being under siege because of Turkey's alliance with Israel and the presence of U.S. troops in Turkey and Iraq. Syria, for its part, has stopped supporting the Kurds, and, according to various reports, has dropped its demand for the Alexandretta region, which has been a focus of dispute between the two countries for the past five decades. Also, Syria insists that Turkey will mediate in its negotiations with Israel, thus contributing to Turkey's international status.


The Arab Countries

Syria seeks to reassure the Arab countries regarding its intentions, emphasizing that its relations with Turkey and Iran do not come at the expense of its relations with the Arab world, and that no harm to Arab interests will result – on the contrary, these relations will actually strengthen them. However, while senior Syrian officials stress the Arab countries' special status, Syria does not seem to be assigning them a leading role in the regional bloc that it is working to consolidate. Apparently, the Arab countries are meant to join the regional alliance, when it materializes, but will not be part of its founding nucleus.


At the annual Ba'th party conference, in December 2009, Syrian presidential aide 'Imad Hassan Turkmani clarified the Syrian perception, saying: "Syria is acting to establish a regional bloc, to include Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, and to connect the continents... Syria wants a regional alliance that will first of all serve all the Arabs and will support the matters that concern them. [This alliance] will complete the Arab alliance on which Syria relies as a main support... In policy, there is no room for dreams; there are [only] interests that [Syria sees] as the basis [of its policy]..."[41]


Syria's striving to consolidate a regional alliance along these lines may reflect its understanding, based on the experience of recent years, that it cannot trust the Arab countries to support it in time of need, and that it must pull together an axis that currently bypasses the Arab countries, and will later be joined by them after they realize its strength and the advantages it offers. This policy has already borne fruit: One example of this is Saudi Arabia, which did a complete about-face in its position towards Syria once it saw Syria's steadfastness in the face of regional and international pressures.


At the same time, Syria is trying to label itself as a leader of the campaign for reconciliation in the Arab world, and it apparently seeks to lead this world, as evidenced by statements made to Syrian state television by presidential political and information advisor Buthayna Sha'ban: "Syria is a central player in the region, and no one can ignore that. It aspires to be the central player in obtaining the Arab rights, not only in the Golan Heights, but also in Palestine..."[42]


N. Mozes

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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