Regime survival depends on a tight grip on Damascus and a delicate manipulation of regional and international contradictions

The Arab Spring

In January 2011 protests erupted in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak. It was the toppling of the Tunisian President Zeinelabidin Bin Ali on the 14th of January 2011 by popular protests that encouraged the Egyptian youths to organize themselves and take to the streets demanding the abdication of Mubarak. A few weeks later, protests broke out in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.  These events forced the U.S. to rearrange its plans mainly to minimize the damage to the American strategic interests. The Syrian demonstrators had strong motives for their discontent with the regime. After five decades of the rule of the Baath Party, the Syrians were fed up with the rampant corruption and nepotism, and the lack of civil and political liberties.  After a decade in power, Bashar al-Assad attempted to reform the regime, but the turnout was limited.  He introduced a set of economic liberal reforms that benefited the upper class, and mainly those who were close to the regime. In addition, he opened the market for imports, mainly from Turkey, at the expense of local economy. This undermined the support for the regime among lower middle classes and rural areas, which made it turn against the Syrian government.

The U.S., along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, supported and financed the neo-alafi groups who were part of the demonstrations that erupted in Syria and highlighted a sectarian discourse exemplified, by the attack of one Salafi sheikh in Deraa city on the Druze.[36]They provoked a wave of anti-minorities hate campaign that targeted the Shiites, Alawites and Christians.[37]It is suffice to remember that the southern Syrian city of Deraa is the major city in Hauran which forms a natural geographical extension of Jordan, and consequently it is open to socio-political effects coming from the Arabian Peninsula.  Furthermore, the Lebanese March 14th political coalition, dominated by the Sunni-based Future Movement supported in funds and arms the insurgency in Syria.  This movement, led by the Lebanese ex-prime minister Saad Hariri, had large followers in Sunni areas like Akkar in northern Lebanon, in central and southern Bekaa, and in the coastal cities. The northern part of Lebanon became the hotbed for the neo-Salafis that provided a vital support for the Syrian rebels. The Lebanese military intelligence arrested four people who were smuggling weapons into Syria, and a boatload of arms was intercepted on its way from Tripoli to the Syrian coast.[38] Simultaneously, the Kurds of Iraq encouraged their brethren in Qamishli, Al Hasaka and Boukamal in northeastern Syria to rebel against the regime. Notably, the Syrian authorities intercepted loads of arms smuggled from Iraq to Syria.[39] Dayr El Zor, a city in eastern Syria, whose residents share familial ties with the people of central Iraq, also witnessed demonstrations with the participation of neo Salafis. The U.S. saw in the protests an opportunity to exert pressure on Bashar al-Assad. President Barak Obama, in a speech on the Arab revolutions, called on Bashar al-Assad to ‘lead the reforms in his country or resign’ and moreover, he warned al-Assad that ‘the quelling of the protests may lead to international intervention’.[40]

Turkey was one of the most affected nations by the explosive situation in Syria and called on the Syrian President to start a process of reforms that would lead to more political and civic rights after five decades of Baathist authoritarian rule. The Turkish minister of foreign affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, rushed to visit Syria and meet with president Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the crisis to express his country’s will to assist in this process.[41]It is important to mention that the first weeks of protests did not witness any significant political development in the Syrian cities and towns adjacent to the Turkish border. However, things began to change in May and June of 2011 as the Turkish P.M. Recep Tayyep Erdogan announced that “the horrors committed in Syria were inexcusable”, calling for al-Assad to drop his brother Maher, whom he considered as “responsible for quashing the revolts”. He went on to say that ‘if those horrors were to continue, Turkey would not defend Syria against the pressures that would be exerted by the “international community”.[42]  Then Ahmet Davutoglu declared that al-Assad had one week to start with reforms, otherwise the international community would intervene in Syria.[43]Talks circulated about the intention of Turkey to impose a “security zone” in northern Syria echoing the geostrategic interests set by Davutoglu in his book, as abovementioned.[44]Afterwards, tension in northern Syria started to escalate with the events in Jisr Al-Shoghoor, where armed groups killed 120 security personnel. The security zone in northern Syria, suggested by Davutoglu, copied the late security zone established by the ex-Turkish president Turgut Ozal the early 1990s to fight the Kurdish Labor Party (P.K.K.) insurgents. It was clear that the Turkish officials were looking to play a role in the Arab World by intervening in Syria in a way consistent with the American strategic policy in the Middle East. That strategy aimed to expand the Turkish influence southwards to connect with Jordan and the Persian Gulf, so that the Mediterranean coast would be closed to any Iranian, Russian or Chinese infiltration. This strategy has also meshed with the French policy, which was based on France’s traditional drive to control the Syrian coastal region. This, in my opinion, explains the French foreign ministry’s call on the United Nations and the European Union to impose sanctions on Syrian officials, a call that was adopted by Portugal, Britain, and Germany.[45]

Al-Assad Supporters

President Bashar al-Assad encountered major western pressures. However, there were other regional and international players that expressed their support to the regime. Iran was the primary power that unconditionally backed the Syrian regime, which supported Iran during the devastating Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). The Iranian-Syrian alliance started with the late Hafez al-Assad, who built a strong alliance with Imam Khomeini. This alliance had given Iran a significant access to the Arab Middle East and, via Syria, granted Iran a strategic position on the Mediterranean while the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon provided it with a major part in the Arab-Israeli conflict. For Iran, the possibility of losing Syria, at a time when the west was attempting to lay siege on Iran, meant that Washington and its allies could increase the pressures on Tehran to destabilize the Islamic regime which would also serve in locking China and Russia inside Asia, and prevent them from reaching the open seas and the maritime trade routes. This in part explains the announcement of the Iranian foreign ministry that the events in Syria “were part of a western conspiracy to destabilize a government that supported resistance against Israel”.[46]Tehran then expressed its opposition to “any foreign intervention in Syrian affairs”,[47]and objected to western accusations that Iran was assisting Syrian security forces in suppressing the demonstrations.[48]This was clear in the stance of Hezbollah expressed by its general secretary Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah,[49]who stated that losing the Syrian support to the armed resistance to Israel would mean the destruction of the Islamic Resistance.

Russia is the second supporter to al-Assad regime. The calls for changing the Syrian regime would also mean that Moscow would lose an important ally in the Middle East. Russia’s relationship with Damascus had formed the cornerstone of the Russian strategy in the region since the early 1950s, that offered Russia an important naval base on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, something it had aspired to achieve since the days of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725). Prior to the escalation in Syria, Russia had expressed its resentment against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which pushed for an international resolution to protect the civilians in Libya (as Muammar Gaddafi’s (r.1969-2011) forces were cracking down on civilians), and then used it, according to Russia, as an excuse for military intervention in Libya. Noting that Moscow had favorable relations with Tripoli, the fall of Gaddafi was considered a severe blow to its vital interests in the Mediterranean. In order to prevent the repetition of the Libyan scheme, Russia severely voiced its intent to oppose any international resolution against Syria. It told the Syrian opposition groups that had visited Moscow that Russia would oppose any international intervention and any destabilization of the regime while encouraging the opposition to start talks with the Syrian regime. The Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, conveyed Russia’s staunch opposition any condemnation of the Syrian regime in the U.N. Security Council.[50]Losing Syria totally to the west meant that the Middle East would be closed to the Russians, and therefore the U.S. can use Turkey to infiltrate the Caucasus and central Asia.

China is the third supporter of Syria. It opposed any international resolution against the Syrian regime. Historically, China tended to be withdrawn its own borders “because there was nothing that it needed from the outside world”. Since early history, it was the Arab and Persian merchants who had gone to China. The latter had not left its borders except on two occasions; the first was when it had fallen under the Mongols whose desire to open trade routes with the external world pushed China out of its isolation. This resulted in the first instance of Eurasian unity starting from China. The second instance of Chinese adventurism came after the collapse of the Mongol rule in China when the Ming Dynasty took over power. Emperor Zhu Di (r. 1402-1424) sent out a naval fleet that sailed around the world in 1421 before returning to China. Acting on imperial orders, the fleet was dismantled because “the world had nothing that China needed” and the Asian empire returned to its isolation.[51]This insularity was what gave the western powers the opportunity to besiege the greatest power in the early modern times and to transform it into Asia’s  “sick man” in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, China no longer has the luxury of secluding itself from the rest of the world because its economy requires foreign oil and markets for its products.

Speculation about the fall of al-Assad meant that Iran would be significantly weakened. Therefore, the Middle East would be closed to Russia, China and Iran. With Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, strengthening their ties to the U.S., China’s venturing into the high seas would be difficult without American consent. No world power with aspirations for playing an international role would accept that its routes be under the control of another power. Therefore, China’s connections with the world would be through the Middle East, exactly the case with the Mongols who had conquered China in the 13th century. It was through the Middle East that China could reach Africa, needed for its rich natural resources. This would explain the good relations between China and Sudan, the former’s gateway to Africa, which would put extra emphasis on the necessity of Syria’s independence from the West. Hence we can understand the reasons why China’s foreign ministry declared that“Syria is a very important nation in the Middle East and it has to remain stable, and all problems have to be resolved internally without any external intervention that would lead to complications”.[52]