Assad Foreign Policy (II): Strategies of Confrontation
Published Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Third-Wayers repeatedly discredit the mumanaist (political and/or military resistance) credentials of the Assad regime on account of a number of regional policies which include: its intervention on behalf of right-wing Christian militias in Lebanon in 1976; its war against Palestinian groups in Lebanon in the 1980s; its decision to join the Gulf War coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991; its reluctance to engage Israel militarily; and its participation in so-called peace negotiations with Israel since 1991.
Indeed, the first two of these policies in particular represent the darker side of the Assad regime’s foreign policy history. Hafez al-Assad’s strategic motives at the time have been explained by academics as relating to his intent to reign in the Palestinians, and later Hezbollah, in order to avert a wider regional war with Israel, and to co-opt the Maronite Right lest it “draw Israel into the fighting on its behalf and... throw the Christians into the hands of Israel and balkanize Lebanon,” according to Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond Hinnebusch.
In a recently declassified Pentagon document, the Assistant-Secretary of Defense explains the reasoning behind Assad’s 1976 intervention:
“Asad is loath to see emerge on his western flank a radical leftist- and Palestinian dominated Lebanon, almost certainly unamenable to his direction. Furthermore, a radical Lebanon could drag Asad into a war with Israel at a time, place, and in circumstances not of his own choosing. Moreover, a radicalized Lebanon would be a military liability as a confrontation state with Israel. Lebanon may never be able to field a credible military force against Israel and certainly could not do so for Lebanese-Israeli border, a mission for which they are clearly inadequate, or to present Israel with a virtually undefended corridor through which the IDF could outflank his forces on the Golan Heights.”
While difficult to justify this intervention either morally or ideologically, given its Realist motives, serving Israeli interests was clearly not one of them as the above document reveals. Furthermore, it is nothing short of politically naive reductionism to dismiss all of Syria’s foreign policy record as being consistent with these policies or as being governed exclusively by crude realpolitik. Even as it sought to restrain Palestinian forces in Lebanon, Syria confronted the Israeli invasion in 1982 and a year later, succeeded in torpedoing the infamous, US-backed, May 17 Agreement that Israel sought to impose on Lebanon, and which would otherwise have turned it into an Israeli satellite state.
Syria’s Participation in the Gulf War
Even Hafez al-Assad’s decision to partake in the US-led “Operation Desert Storm” coalition against Saddam in 1991 cannot be reduced to such considerations, unless one regards political survival, national security and state sovereignty as power-politics. Doubtless, one of Assad’s motives for joining the coalition was to secure US acceptance of the Taif Accord which legitimized Syria’s mandate over Lebanon. However, this was by no means the sole incentive for participating in the offensive against Iraq as Third-Wayers and oppositionists would have us believe. Assad’s unpopular decision must be viewed against the backdrop of the “1989 Revolutions” in formerly Communist Eastern European countries which presaged the dismemberment of Syria’s superpower patron, the Soviet Union, only months after the Gulf war. In the context of a uni-polar world order, Assad’s rationale for ganging up against a regional rival who was hardly a beacon of resistance to imperialism at the time, was to prevent a similar fate from befalling Syria. After losing the support of the Soviet Union, Assad was forced into a detente of sorts with the sole remaining superpower. As expounded by Ehteshami and Hinnebusch:
“Assad certainly feared that the Iraq invasion could unleash a wider war which Israel could exploit to attack Syria, and joining the coalition was a kind of insurance against that….The destruction of Iraq showed what Assad had spared Syria. Syrians grudgingly gave him credit for shrewdly pre-empting plots to make Syria the next victim of the “New World Order.”
Syria’s Participation in the “Peace Process”
This type of strategic logic was also displayed in Assad’s refusal to drag Syria into another costly war with Israel and his subsequent decision to partake in the peace process, both of which are cited by Third-Way intellectuals as instances of the regime’s alleged complicity with imperialism and Zionism. Third-Wayers peremptorily denounce the Assad leadership for ensuring the Golan Heights remain Israel’s “quietest front” as detracting from its resistance or mumanaa status, and as an example of its “cowardly” regional policies.
What they fail to take note of, however, is how suicidal any offensive action on Syria’s part would be not only for the regime but for the nation-state as a whole. As many historians have pointed out, Syria lacks “a credible offensive capability” in that it would not be able to hold any territory it might succeed in recapturing against an Israeli counter-attack. This is even more so the case considering that Syria lost territory in the 1967 war and failed to retrieve it in 1973 despite the participation of other Arab states.
Hafez al-Assad’s original strategy upon assuming power was to strike a strategic alliance with Egypt in order to retake the Golan. But although he believed in the necessity of the military option, Assad also conceived of the 1973 War and the recapture of the Golan as a prelude to negotiations which would lead to an “honorable” settlement that would include the Palestinian territories. The negotiations track was therefore always viewed as an unavoidable, albeit distasteful, need dictated by the strategic balance of power. This dualistic approach to the confrontation with Israel characterized much of Syria’s history.
However, by the late 1980s Syria was forced to scale back its military ambitions on account of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and the Soviet Union’s changing priorities which led to a consequent reduction in military and economic aid to Syria. Such a scale back entailed a shift from pursuing a military balance with Israel to a strategic standoff where Israel could still launch offensive action against Syria but only at a high price. Concomitant with this revised military doctrine was a new political strategy described by Ehteshami and Hinnebusch as “negative power” – or what Washington dubs, a “spoiler” role – the obstruction of a peace agreement which either damages its own interests or Arab and Palestinian rights. This strategy was further demonstrated by Assad’s participation in the peace process after the Gulf War, which also coincided with the downfall of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Deprived of its Soviet backer, and in the context of a new world order, the regime could no longer afford to incur the wrath of the sole remaining superpower.
Rather than view such a change in strategy as a diminution in ideology, Ehteshami and Hinnebusch refer to it as “tactical rejectionism” characterized by “consistent goals and tactical flexibility.”
As Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah himself observed in his Quds day speech in 2009, the policy options before mumanaists did not fit into a neat dichotomy: “either war [value rationality] or if not able to fight, we succumb [instrumental rationality]”. When the requirements for military confrontationalism could not be satisfied, rejectionism served as its ideologically consistent and strategically advantageous, political substitute, and this substitute was to “not succumb” as Syria has done. Thus, for Nasrallah, although “It is true it [Syria] did not fight and close a front but still, it did not surrender.”
This characterization is not confined to Assad’s allies like Hezbollah, but extends to his enemies as well. Aside from Henry Kissinger’s famous maxim, “No war without Egypt no peace without Syria”, Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s former special Middle East coordinator, laments “Peace was only acceptable on Assad’s terms”.
Israeli professor, Moshe Ma’oz explains some of the frustrations from the Israeli side:
“One of the obstacles to peace in the 1990s was Assad’s refusal to hold direct talks with Israel. So was his refusal to offer guarantees to Israel over water, security and peace. By security and peace, Israel doesn’t just mean guarantees of peace on its border with Syria. It means a distancing between Iran and Syria, which would also mean a distancing between Syria and Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Yet Assad’s steadfast refusal to divorce himself from his allies, prompted Israel to break off the Wye Plantation talks in 1996 after Syria refused to condemn Hamas’ attacks on Israeli buses, as observed by Israeli specialist, Henry Siegman.
This consistency was further evinced in the Geneva talks of March 2000, which was widely described as a failure on account of Syria’s refusal to relinquish its demand for a “sliver” of shoreline along the Sea of Galilee, as related by The Economist at the time.
True to form, Hafez al-Assad was a “100 percenter” as Ma’oz correctly identifies him, despite all this cost him in military and economic pressures. As Ma’oz points out, had he struck a peace deal with Israel, a large part of Syria’s budget which had previously earmarked for military purposes would have been diverted to social and economic development. Yet Assad was clearly willing to pay this price, as his allies knew well, which is why Hezbollah and Iran have always tolerated and understood Syria’s participation in the peace process, even though they don’t recognize the legitimacy of such talks.
On the report of one source close to Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad once confided to the resistance movement that his father had in fact “feared” that the Israelis would accept a withdrawal to the June 4 lines and sought to find other pretexts for scuppering the talks after Wye Plantation. He did indeed want a comprehensive peace agreement, but not at any price.
Bashar al-Assad’s resistance credentials
Another pervasive tendency among Third-Wayers, is to conflate Bashar al-Assad’s regional policies with his father’s, despite the fact they are considerably more “radical”, as acknowledged by his American and Israeli foes. This distinction owes itself not only to differences in Bashar’s foreign policy style, but also to international and regional developments such as the Bush doctrine, along with its regime change and preemptive war policies, and the perceived success and efficacy of the resistance option, which was best illustrated by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 at the hands of Hezbollah’s resistance.
Were it not for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s mumanaism, it is highly unlikely Hezbollah would be staunchly defending it and losing Arab popular support in the process. For Hezbollah, the Assad regime was not merely an active bystander who defended its allies, but a party to the resistance struggle as “it did not only stand by the resistance, but it backed the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine”. The resistance movement even maintains that it owed its victory in 2000, at least in part, to “Syrian backing”. While the nature of this backing is not specified, Nasrallah’s claim that he did “not want to go into details” about this support, “so as not to embarrass the Syrian leadership,” insinuates that it is military.
Hezbollah and Iran are not alone in viewing the Assad regime as a bastion of political resistance. Israeli professor, Eyal Zisser notes that “Bashar's foreign policy troubles started as early as the winter of 2000, following the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising (the al-Aqsa Intifada) and the renewal of Hezbollah's activities, with Syria's blessing, against Israel's northern border.”
Viewed from Washington’s perspective, Bashar’s regional policies were far more threatening than his father’s. Dennis Ross griped that “In 1990-1991, Hafez al-Assad's actions during the Persian Gulf War demonstrated that he grasped the realities of power very differently than his son understands them today,” hypothesizing that “At the time of the 2002 war in Iraq, Hafez would have looked for a deal with the Bush administration...”
As outlined in part I of this article, it is on account of the central pillars of Bashar’s foreign policy – support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the resistance in Iraq, in addition to its alignment with Iran – that Washington has pursued an increasingly aggressive campaign against his regime.
In effect, although Syria hasn’t directly engaged Israel since 1973, it has been engaging it indirectly through its active backing of resistance groups which have been resisting Israel militarily for the past few decades. What is more, the fact that it has been paying a high price for its military assistance and political support for resistance movements means it did indeed make the required sacrifices of any mumanaist actor and hence can hardly be branded as “cowardly” or insufficiently resistance-oriented.The international war against the regime today is the price Syria has had to pay for the Assad regime’s refusal to capitulate to imperialist and Zionist dictates.
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion”, and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.