Regime survival depends on a tight grip on Damascus and a delicate manipulation of regional and international contradictions
Regional developments during the 1970s and 1980s
Al-Assad believed that the 1973 war would improve the regional status of Syria and would lead to negotiations with Israel to regain the Golan Heights and end the Arab-Israeli struggle in a comprehensive way.Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had the same objectives, which made him decide to coordinate his efforts with al-Assad to launch a simultaneous war on Israel. The war ended with limited military achievements for the Arab armies because Sadat decided to abruptly stop the attack. Israel seized the moment and focused its military efforts on Syria. These developments weakened the Arab stance vis-à-vis Israel and eventually led to unilateral peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel.In 1979, Egypt signed the Camp David accords with Israel, which further weakened Syria vis-à-vis the latter.In response, al-Assad adopted a new strategy that would lead to the formation of a coalition between Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the PLO against Israel.In 1975, a civil war broke out in Lebanon and two years after that, the al-Assad regime intervened under the pretext of ending this war. Hence, he was partially successful in extending his influence over this neighboring country, but was short of imposing his tutelage over the PLO and Jordan. Until the end of the Civil War (1975-1990), al-Assad was able to impose Syria as the major player in Lebanon. The biggest challenge to this influence came from Israel in 1982, when the Israeli army invaded South Lebanon, and eventually reached Beirut. As a result of this invasion, Israel’s ally and commander of the Phalange armed forces Bashir Gemayel became President. Three weeks after being elected, Bashir was assassinated and was succeeded by his brother Ameen. In spite of the severe blow that Syria received, it was able in 1984 to reverse the situation to its favor by supporting various opponents to Gemayel.
In 1985, a radical change occurred in the Soviet Union; the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev to power constituted the first step towards the eventual collapse of the socialist bloc and the Soviet Union in 1991. The United States took advantage of this situation to impose its influence over the oil-rich Middle East.Iraq stood as an obstacle and had to be eliminated, something that the U.S. would achieve during the second Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait (August 1990-February 1991). In addition, establishing U.S. hegemony in the region would render it capable of obstructing the formation of a Eurasian bloc that could marginalize the United States, and obstruct its plans to be the major power in the world. In this regard, former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out in his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And It’s Geostrategic Imperatives (translated into Arabic as Ruq’at Al Shataranj Al Kubra), that Eurasia is the key to control the world and the great battle for global domination would always hover around it. He added that “the U.S. global hegemony would be achieved through the direct control of the Middle East”. By this, it would be possible to separate Europe from Africa, and to create a rift between Russia and Europe. This would also create an impregnable barrier against Russia’s intentions to access the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, and at the same time prevent China from accessing Africa. Brzezinski added that controlling the European part of Eurasia through oil and security could allow Washington to control Africa while the economic control over Russia would facilitate the control of Asia, and thus control Oceania and the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the North and South Poles.
The Arabs were well aware of the serious effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union on them, which prompted Saddam Hussein in 1989 to declare that “the end of the Cold War was a disaster for the Arabs”.Those changes at the international level made al-Assad concerned about Syria, and convinced him that the Americans would dominate the world stage for the upcoming decade,encouraging him to improve his relations with them and not to confront them in the Middle East.That was the reason why he joined the international coalition to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Syria was hoping that its attitude would contribute to its establishment as a partner of the United States in the Middle East, and its removal from the American blacklist, which would allow it to gain economic aid, and facilitate the transfer of U.S. technology to it. Syria received two billion dollars from Saudi Arabia and established a kind of alliance with Egypt and the Gulf States G.C.C. (Declaration of Damascus). In addition to that, the harmony with the United States allowed it to overthrow the rebel General Michel Aoun in Lebanon and to impose a settlement through what is known as the Taif Agreement.Finally, Syria was not to oppose the peace process that was aimed at ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and at integrating Israel into the Arab region. The U.S. sponsored the peace negotiations between the Arabs and Israel (1991-1996). These peace talks were able to conclude a peace agreement between the P.L.O. and Israel in 1993, and between the latter and Jordan in 1994, but fell short of establishing peace between Syria and Israel.
The Dawn of the New Millennium
With the dawn of the new millennium, the Americans had to take a series of crucial decisions that would once and for all put to rest the matter of their undisputed global leadership. The war on Afghanistan in autumn 2001 was a chance for the U.S. to delineate the maximum extent to which it could control the Middle East. In addition, the war on Iraq would form an opportunity for the U.S. to give it depth in the Middle East as well as control the oil supplies. The next step would be toppling the regime in Iran and Syria in order to fully control the Middle East. The goals of the two color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were to control the flanks of the U.S. frontier in the Middle East. In May 2000, Israel had withdrawn from south Lebanon in order to close down the last Arab war front against it. This would deprive the Lebanese Resistance of its raison d’etre and would pave the way for U.N. resolution 1559 which would be forged four years later and would demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. A few months after the Israeli withdrawal, the Maronite Patriarchal Council issued a call on the Syrian government to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. That coincided with the Lebanese parliamentary elections that were held according to the legislative law forged by Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri and supported by the head of the Syrian security services in Lebanon, Ghazi Kenaan. This law would form the basis for an attack on Lebanese president Emile Lahhoud and on the preparations that Hafez al- Assad, who died a few months prior to these elections, had secured for a transition of power to his son Bashar. In June 2004, French President Jacques Chirac and American President George W. Bush agreed on sharing influence in the Middle East, which culminated in the Security Council resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon.
It was Rafiq Hariri who had worked hard in secret to have the resolution issued.France had chosen to no longer confront the U.S., but to assist American policies in the Middle East. According to French journalist Vincent Nouzille, the reason was that France, when it had opposed the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003, was counting on the Iraqi resistance to last for several months, which would embarrass the U.S. and push it to seek France’s help “to get out of that bloodbath”.However, the Americans were able to achieve quick success and to topple Saddam Hussein after three weeks of battle, and President George Bush attempted to isolate Chirac on the international arena.Yet What helped Chirac was the increase of the Iraqi resistance operations against the U.S. occupation, which pushed Bush to seek Chirac’s aid in an attempt to widen international support to the Americans in Iraq. The U.S. was convinced that it could benefit from France by including it in its plans for the Middle East in return for a partial French influence in Syria and Lebanon.Chirac had supported Bashar al-Assad in seizing power in Syria in 2000, thinking that he could put him under his tutelage and convince him to withdraw from Lebanon and break his ties with Iran, however, he was disappointed.Syria’s reaction to the 1559 UN resolution was to extend the presidency of its ally Emile Lahhoud by three years, and to replace Hariri by another Sunni ally, namely Omar Karami as Prime Minister. On February 14, 2005 Hariri was assassinated and the West blamed Syria for the act.
Turkey as a new regional power
The U.S. victory in Afghanistan and especially Iraq was inconclusive. The American army met fierce resistance in both countries. Syria and Iran had supported the Iraqi resistance and made the American occupation costly. Russia also backed countercoups that beleaguered President Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia and removed Viktor Yuchinko in Ukraine. The Americans became aware of their limitations under Obama. They therefore pushed for a political agreement with a pro-American Iraqi government which would ease the pressure off them so that they could focus on tightening their grip on Afghanistan. On the other hand, Iran took advantage of the American faltering to exert its influence in a number of strategic positions such as in Lebanon through Hezbollah, in Gaza through Hamas, and in Yemen through the Houthis. Once again the U.S. would take advantage of history. From the 16th through the 19th centuries, Shiite Iran and Sunni Ottoman Empire were reciprocally containing each others.
In Turkey, new political developments announced the breakaway from the secular legacy established by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. This breakaway had many causes, the most important of which was the failure of Turkey to join the European Union. The main issue that the Islamists raised was embracing Turkey’s Islamic past and reincorporating their country into the Islamic world. It was the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who drew the outlines of the new Turkish foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. In his opinion, there were three pillars of the Turkish national security. Turkey should abandon the policy adopted by secularists since Ataturk to withdraw behind its borders, and should follow a more dynamic foreign policy.Turkey had to defend Istanbul from the shores of the Adriatic and thus it had to strengthen its ties with Kosovo and Bosnia, while using Albania as a base from which to extend Turkish influence into the Balkans.Davutoglu also saw that the defense of eastern Anatolia was not limited to the borders with Armenia and Iran but extended to the western coast of the Caspian Sea, and thus Azerbaijan would form a base from which Turkish influence could infiltrate the Caucasus.He also believed that the security of southeastern Turkey did not stop at its border with Iraq and Syria but extended to the line stretching from Karkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq to Aleppo in northern Syria, indicating that the Middle East formed the backyard of Turkey.Syria was the gate from which Turkey could return to the Middle East. Ankara used the faltering peace talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv to establish itself as a mediator between Syria and Israel.