The ‘power play’ of Syrian relations


The National recently ran an analysis of improving Saudi-Syrian relations within longer talk of Damascus’s (shrewd?) handling of its various opponents and allies. There’s very little talk of Lebanon, strangely enough, and much more attention paid to Bashar and how he might mimic his father:

To survive the pressure and isolation, the younger Assad studied his father’s statecraft. Hafez Assad, wrote the British journalist Patrick Seale, “had always been a patient man, able to take the long view in conflicts with Arab rivals and in the contest with Israel. Believing that time was on the Arabs’ side, he counselled other leaders not to hurry, not to negotiate impulsively, not to make concessions from weakness.”

In the 1970s and 80s, Hafez Assad used Syria’s regional influence and its confrontation with Israel as levers to generate economic aid. Syria received billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment from the Soviet Union and hundreds of millions in grants from the Gulf Arab states. But Arab governments cut off aid in 1980, when Assad supported Iran at the start of its eight-year war with Iraq. Assad argued that Saddam Hussein was wasting valuable Arab resources by fighting Iran, instead of Israel. But the Gulf states were more concerned with their regional security, and they viewed Iran as a greater threat than Israel.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Assad deftly joined the US-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait – and Arab aid once again flowed to Damascus. The foreign aid allowed the regime to avert economic collapse, but it was not enough to generate self-sustained growth in the Syrian economy. From Washington, Assad extracted an even more important concession: he was granted control over Lebanon as it emerged from a 15-year civil war.

Bashar Assad’s main goal today is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country. (The Alawites are a minority sect within Shiite Islam.) That may explain the regime’s history of tortured alliances and constant hedging. But the ultimate goal for Assad – as it was for his father before him – is to regain control of the Golan Heights, a strategic promontory that Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war. Some western and Arab analysts have long argued that it is in Assad’s interest to remain in a perpetual state of war with Israel – this enables Syria to fall back on its rhetoric as “the beating heart of Arab nationalism” and last bastion of Arab resistance to the West. As a result, this line of thinking goes, Assad will be reluctant to make a deal with Israel.

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