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The Extent to which Syrian Foreign Policy is Beholden to Development Elsewhere in the Middle East

By Edited May 17, 2016 0 0

In spite of the convenient inclination to analyze a state’s foreign policy initiatives from a purely global, all-encompassing vantage point, past and contemporary regional developments are indefinitely scrutinized prior to the final decision of the respective state. After all, regional neighbors generally have similar political and economic structures, are influenced by similar cultural phenomena, and simply face similar dilemmas—such as limitations pertaining to natural resources—because certain regions naturally yield assets and shortcomings unique to the particular region. Yet in contrast, when regional neighbors do not have similar ideology and form of governance, or when close quarters leads to territorial dispute and conflicting economic interests, an empirical glance at modern history reveals that regional states are the most likely to engage in war with one another. Whether exhibited by the World Wars, relations between the Koreas, African genocide, U.S.-Cuban hostility and countless other instances of tensions between state and non-state actors residing in the same region, regional developments dictate policy because there is an indisputable linkage between regional developments affecting the domestic and foreign policy of the state. The Middle East is no exception to the fundamental attributes and underlying dichotomy that characterize regional relations, and Syria in particular is beholden to the region because of its uncommon sectarian divide that has seen the minority sect, the Alawi Shias, seize and maintain leadership amidst crises that have forced the Alawis to choose between holding true to Shi’ite values or supporting Middle Eastern states with Sunni majority when it is in the strategic national interest of Syria. Unsurprisingly, with a sect that accounts for 12% of the population seizing power, Ba’th legitimacy has faced internal and external opposition since its onset in 1971 (Hinnebusch 2002: 76). As the official Jordanian mass media described of the regime, “when the Arab people in Syria discovered the reality of the sub-sectarian regime dominating them…it [the Ba’th regime] resorted for the sake of survival to a policy of repression and terrorism inside and outside Syria” (van Dam 1979: 106). However, highlighting the polarized opinions of the Ba’th regime and its willingness to engage in eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Sunni opposition groups forcefully—in the likes of the Hama Massacre of 1982—is Thomas Friedman who claims that the regime’s response exhibited, “…the natural reaction of a modernizing politician trying to stave off…retrogressive elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved” and, “…if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among many Sunni Muslims” (Friedman 1989: 100). Inevitably analysts will decipher evidence subjectively and formulate opinions regarding Syria’s legitimacy, but what is not in question is that Syria’s actions prompt other states and sub-state organizations of the Middle East to choose whether they wish to align with or oppose Syria’s government. In short, while regional developments outside of Syrian influence certainly affect Syrian foreign policy, it is actually the regional developments that are in response to previous Syrian initiatives that beholden the majority of Syrian foreign policy; ultimately Syria’s quest for a national identity in accordance with a surprisingly consistent record of utilizing realist balance of power methodology in relations with the Middle East and Western powers amplifies the restraints and opportunities that regional developments have created for Syria and, more notably, the restraints and opportunities that Syria’s Ba’th regime has self-created.

            Characterized by sectarianism and conflict since gaining independence following World War II, in the past four decades the Ba’th regime has sought to establish a ‘Syrian identity.’ Presumably this would entail promoting Arabist values, but as Yahya Sadowski recounts of Hafiz-al Asad’s decisions in the 1980’s, “…the Asad regime’s Arabist credentials had been frayed by the proxy wars that it waged with the PLO, various Lebanese factions, Jordan, and Iraq…Syria abandoned its policy of seeking ‘strategic parity’ with Israel…and Syrian troops not only joined with the American-led forces assaulting Iraq but Syrian negotiators also began a direct engagement with Israeli diplomats in a search for peace” (Sadowski 2002: 139-140). Prior to deciphering motive, the regime’s actions appear to reflect a lack of direction: in particular, engaging in conflict with the PLO is at odds with the Arabist doctrine of supporting Palestinian ascension and directly contradicts the public consensus of the citizens of Syria, and supporting the American invasion of Iraq certainly alienates a Shia stronghold and signifies to Israel that Syria will align with ‘Western Sunni moderates’ Saudi Arabia and Egypt before posing a formidable threat to Israeli influence. However, although seemingly contradictory at first, the reasoning behind the regime’s actions is actually quite clear: Asad determined that Syria needed to influence as many different actors as possible—turning Syria “…from a game into a player” (Sadowski 2002: 151). Regarding the previous examples, Syria’s decision to join the Western insurgence in Iraq is hardly surprising considering Saddam Hussein had ordered Syria to withdraw troops from Lebanon, an action that would seriously jeopardize Syrian influence in regards to the ‘peace process,’ and Iran was already increasingly emerging as the more appealing Shia ally for Syria. Additionally, Syria had been seriously attempting to reach rapprochement with Israel around 1990—as evidenced by increased dialogue between Damascus and Tel Aviv and Syrian opposition to PLO stances of the time.

From the perspective that Syria’s identity transcends traditional Arabist tendencies in favor of an identity characterized by active involvement based upon strategic interest, Syria would not be beholden to regional developments because Syria would influence the developments—thus creating a system in which foreign policy can thrive because it is much easier to predict events within one’s locus of control. As Sadowski goes on to note, “…through sponsorship of Ba’thist, communist, and Islamic opposition, he [Asad] sought influence in Baghdad. Through support for rejectionist elements of the PLO, he gained the ability to affect both the Palestinians and the Israelis. And through alliances with sundry militias in Lebanon, he became a force in Beirut even after Syrian troops officially withdrew from the city” (Sadowski 2002: 150-151). Albeit on bridle terms, Asad never deviated from using the hand he was dealt to mitigate potential external threats by lending support to various groups in hopes of receiving the reward of recognition of legitimacy from as many thankful parties as possible. In supporting left-wing, fundamentalist uprisings in Iraq, garnering support from the radical rejectionists whom both Palestine and Israel understandably feared, and aligning with and funding militias similar to Hezbollah to also restrict Israeli and Western power in the region, the regime truly took the objective of balancing power by appealing to hardline movements with the intention of offsetting the status quo into its own hands. Claiming that Syria became overly-involved in regional and foreign policy is certainly arguable but, as will be further developed, the Ba’th regime consistently—through balancing power—acted with Syria’s strategic interests in mind rather than yielding to ideological constraints.

            Similar to other states who intend to initiate policy as opposed to acting in reaction to it, Syria’s ‘player’ mentality has led to the continuous shuffling of friends and foes in order to balance perceived power. For example, in spite of Egypt’s Sunni majority and public adherence to U.S. influence in the Middle East, Raymond Hinnebusch asserts that Syria, “embarked on ‘defensive unionism’ [with Egypt]…as a way of seeking legitimacy, neutralizing domestic opponents and acquiring external patrons (Iraq, Egypt) against rivals” in the beginning stages of the Ba’th regime (Hinnebusch 2008: 264). And years later, after aligning with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in order to strengthen its hand against Israel, Syria again entered into an alliance with relatively pro-Israeli (in comparison to the majority of the Middle East) Egypt in 1988—despite drastically different ideologies—in order to counter Israeli interference in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. In accordance with his ‘interests over ideology’ approach, Sadowski insists, “Asad’s approach to Israel reflects more a fear of the Jewish state’s military capabilities and the threat that Israel poses to Syrian influence rather than any ideological abhorrence of Zionism” (Sadowski 2002: 151). And Syria has initiated favorable relations with states on polarizing sides of the Israeli debate, essentially flip-flopping allegiances in order to avoid a bandwagon effect, dependent on the developments of the times—largely influenced by Syria itself. In other words, Syria does not have a clear position on any given issue because the government will simply make the move that they feel best balances power at the particular moment in time. At times in Syria’s history that has put them on the sides of ideologically clashing Israel and Palestine, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah and Hamas. Of course, the downside of having a consistently allegiance-changing foreign policy is that Syria lacks genuine allies, and this has proven to be true during the recent Syrian uprisings where the United States, moderate Middle Eastern states, and radical Islamic groups alike, who have all worked with Syria in the past for one reason or another, have all now found reasons to at least lean towards supporting the rebel movement in light of mass human rights violations. Syria’s gaping weakness—lack of dependable allies—has caused analysts to question whether Syrian foreign policy has been rational or miscalculated; as will be demonstrated, the Ba’th regime has generally acted rational but, as is the case when one bites more than they can chew, Syria’s involvement with so many different regional developments without ever garnering full-fledged domestic or international stability has simply yielded a state that ‘has its hands in too many external pies’ and is consequently unstable.

            Amongst the criticisms of recent Syrian foreign policy under Bashar al-Assad, one such theory is that Bashar is driven by Shi’ite politik between Damascus, Tehran, and Hezbollah in order to pursue sectarian interests. However, as aforementioned in the case of many of Hafiz’s policies, Syria’s alignment with Sunni Hamas reiterates the sentiment that Syria remains ‘interests over ideology.’ And furthermore, regarding the peace process with Israel under Bashar, Bassel Salloukh contends, “Studies…suggest that failure should be blamed on Israeli, rather than Syrian, inflexibility,” and the Israeli attack on Syria in 2007 supports this notion—although the recent Lebanon and Gaza Wars reflect poorly on both sides’ desire for peace (Salloukh 2010: 161). Nevertheless, the theory that Syrian foreign policy is driven by Shi’ite politik simply misconstrues the facts. Another contention raised by Western scholars is that Syria has made irrational miscalculations in the last decade that ruined the prospect of democratic peace in the Middle East that became the staple of neoconservative rhetoric. In accordance with how Syria responded to the Iran-Iraq War, “Syria was expected to jump on the U.S. bandwagon in a reconfigured regional order, assisting in, rather than resisting, the making of the prospective post-Saddam pax Americana” (Salloukh 2010: 162). But, exhibiting another instance of the West failing to predict the motive behind why states in the Middle East align the way they do, Syria aided Iraq in 2003 as a balancing measure to ensure that the Middle East did not become too Westernized—which would inevitably sway the pendulum in favor of Israel. A pro-American government in Iraq would leave Syria with neighborly breathing space only in Lebanon, and Syria was well-aware that—if the United States was successful in Iraq—they would go after Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon in accordance with following the domino-effect rationale. And sure enough, albeit after Syria was uncooperative with the U.S. in Iraq, Congress reintroduced the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act in 2004 with the aim of reducing Syrian influence in Lebanon which, based upon balance of power methodology, Syria could not afford to lose (GPO 2003: 108-175). As Bashar publicly claimed himself, “Its [the Restoration Act’s] aim was not to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty, it was rather a tool used by the US and France to shift Lebanon from one geopolitical camp to another and compel Syria to disarm Hezbollah in exchange for a staged Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon”  (Assad 2005: 1). Israel’s eagerness to devastate Lebanon shortly thereafter only seems to affirm the substantial amount of leverage that Lebanon gives to Syria in regards to the peace process.

            So, given that Syria has proven that they are consistently rational actors always trying to balance power—making their foreign policy everchanging but generally predictable—, one begs the question as to why the state is so unstable and why the popular perception of Syria is that their government is an unpredictable loose-cannon. The plausible response to this is that Syrian instability is a culmination of everything from having a persistent and violent minority leadership to never demonstrating loyalty to regional states. Accordingly, perception is often reality in foreign affairs; so when other states consider Syria’s history of civilian oppression, contemporary high youth unemployment, and the general aura of domestic instability, other states fear getting too comfortable with Syria in the same way Syria does towards others (Broning 2011: 1-2). Additionally, and this is perhaps particularly important to the revolution of modern school of thought in international relations, Syria’s foreign policy of constantly trying to balance power seems to fail in the absence of support from loyal allies and liberalizing international organizations. Perhaps, at the expense of using hindsight bias, if Syria had catered to its Sunni majority to gain some domestic support and seek rapprochement with bordering neighbors—similar to the Saudi approach for example—whilst dually adhering to balancing power when Syrian interests were threatened by the West and other factions, Syria could have gained trust and balanced power without constantly having to switch allegiances and, most importantly, may not be in the dire situation that it is in now. In conclusion, Syria is greatly beholden to regional developments primarily because its foreign policy of constantly trying to balance power requires Syria to actively follow developments and enact preemptive and reactionary policy accordingly; while this model would appear to keep a state safe, due to a lack of loyal allies and domestic strife, Syria’s ‘rational overextension’ appears to have left the country generally unstable and—apart from the anti-Western contingent of Iran, China, Russia, and Islamic terrorist groups that currently support the Assad regime for economic and ideological reasons—rather isolated in the most turbulent of regions.     


Assad, Bashar al-. (2005). November 11. Speech Reproduced in al-Safir Newspaper and Quoted in “Demystifying Syrian Foreign Policy Under Bashar al-Assad”.

Broning, Michael. (2011). “The Sturdy House that Assad Built”, Council on Foreign Relations: Foreign Affairs.

Friedman, Thomas. (1989). From Beirut to Jerusalem. New York, NY. Doubleday.

GPO. (2003). Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act in Public Law: Authenticated U.S. Government Information. 108-175.

Hinnebusch, Raymond. (2002). Syria: Revolution From Above. New York, NY. Routledge.

Hinnebusch, Raymond. (2008). “Modern Syrian Politics”, History Compass. Vol. 6. 1. 263-285.

Sadowski, Yahya. (2002). “The Evolution of Political Identity in Syria” in Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

Salloukh, Bassel. (2009). “Demystifying Syrian Foreign Policy Under Bashar al-Assad” in Demystifying Syria. London, England. London Middle East Institute.

van Dam, Nikolaos. (1979). “Sectarian showdown: eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood” in The struggle for power in Syria: sectarianism, regionalism, and tribalism in politics, 1961-1978. London, England. Croom Helm.



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