By Mohamad Bazzi
It seemed like nothing more than a perfunctory state visit: two Arab leaders sitting awkwardly in ornate armchairs, making small talk and smiling for the cameras. The next day, photos of the pair were dutifully published on the front pages of government-owned newspapers in both their countries. But this meeting in October between King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, of Saudi Arabia and Syrian President Bashar Assad was no mere photo-op. It was a signal that, after years of isolation imposed by the Bush administration and its Arab allies, Syria is trying to force itself back into the Arab political order.
Since January, Syria has launched a diplomatic charm offensive, holding six high-level meetings with the new administration of US President Barack Obama and working to mend its relations with fellow Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But Syria is also pursuing a well-worn strategy: keeping all of its options open, and playing its friends and enemies off one another. Assad's regime realises that its most important regional ally, Iran, is threatened by new sanctions and could face further isolation if negotiations with the United States and Europe over Tehran's nuclear programme fall apart. On the other hand, if Iran manages to strike a deal with the West, Syria does not want to be left out. So Assad is hedging his bets, retaining his close ties to Tehran, while reaching out to the Obama administration and trying to repair Syria's relationship with the Sunni Arab regimes allied with the United States.
In late September, the Obama administration invited Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, for talks in Washington; he was the highest-ranking Syrian official to visit the US capital in five years. At the same time, Damascus was laying the groundwork for the state visit by King Abdullah, who has had a tense relationship with Assad. It is a mistake to assume that this diplomatic manoeuvring means that Syria is prepared to abandon Iran, or is ready to fall in line behind Washington. The Syrian-Iranian alliance has endured for nearly 30 years; it cannot be undone lightly. Yet Assad is also keen to reverse a period of intense isolation – Syria has not been shunned this deeply since the early 1980s, when Damascus broke with most of the Arab world to support Iran in its war with Iraq.
What does Syria want? It wants to convince everyone that stabilising the region without its help is impossible: a peace deal with Israel, Palestinian national reconciliation, a stable Iraq, a secure Lebanon – all of these solutions must go through Damascus. For an oil-poor country with little economic clout, the Syrian regime derives its power from its strategic position and carefully nurtured alliances. Syria has played the role of a regional spoiler and Arab nationalist standard-bearer since 1970, when Hafez Assad rose to power in a military coup. He perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble in neighbouring countries and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles. When Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar in 2000, many believed the soft-spoken ophthalmologist could never balance the regional cards as masterfully as his father. But, nine years later, it is clear that Bashar has grown comfortably into the role.
The younger Assad did not have much time to master regional dynamics before he confronted a serious external challenge. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration turned its attention to Damascus as another candidate for "regime change". Syria meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel, and dominated its smaller neighbour, Lebanon. As Washington sought to isolate Damascus, some Arab powers – especially Saudi Arabia – became hostile to Assad and his growing reliance on Iran. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions in 2004, accusing Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to cross into Iraq and fight US forces. The US policy of sanctions and isolation accelerated after the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in which a United Nations investigation implicated top Syrian officials.
Hariri was close to the Saudi royal family, and his death further strained relations between Syria and the kingdom. Things reached a new low during the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah, when Assad called his fellow Arab leaders "half-men" for their criticism of Hizbollah. Last year, King Abdullah boycotted an Arab League summit in Damascus and withdrew his ambassador from the Syrian capital.
In response to the cold shoulder from the United States and its Arab allies, Assad became more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil. Damascus also enhanced its links with Hamas, Hizbollah and the renegade Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Assad calculated that these alliances would help him shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq – and would be useful bargaining chips in any future negotiations with the United States.
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.
But the Alawite regime is obsessed with proving its legitimacy, and while a perpetual conflict with Israel helps keep the ruling clique in power, there is far greater legitimacy to be gained if Bashar succeeds where his father failed and recovers the Golan Heights. The basic contours of an agreement are well defined and acceptable to both sides, and unlike the weak Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Assad can actually deliver on a peace deal with Israel. Syria has consistently offered to sign a separate peace agreement with Israel in exchange for the entire Golan Heights, but the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown little willingness to negotiate with Damascus.
In the meantime, Assad's regime is likely to fall back on its most effective strategy: playing regional dynamics better than anyone else. Syria has shown time and again that it is prepared to destabilise the regione to advance its interests. Assad will try to exert influence on his proxies, play different factions off one another, and continue reaching out to the United States and Arab powers – ultimately hoping to convince everyone that the road to regional stability must run through Damascus.
Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University.
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