Syria’s Foreign Policy: A Juggling Act
By: Elias Muhanna
Published Tuesday, July 17, 2012
In late 2003, Bashar al-Assad met with former US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy in Damascus, and spent some time brainstorming with him about how to improve the US-Syrian relationship. Even during this tense period following the invasion of Iraq, the Syrian government was cooperating with the US on a range of issues such as border security and freezing Iraqi assets in Syrian banks. At one point in the conversation, a classified diplomatic cable tells us, Murphy asked Assad about Hezbollah’s intentions vis-à-vis a peace settlement:
The cache of US government cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 represents one of the most significant documentary sources on Syria’s recent diplomatic history. While the details of Asma al-Assad’s shopping habits and the saccharine emails between [email protected] and his fawning coterie provide a tantalizing glance inside Syria’s secluded elite, the original corpus of leaked cables is a far more valuable goldmine of information on the country’s foreign policy objectives and its strategic orientation.
There are several thousand cables relating to Syria, almost all of which were composed during Bashar al-Assad’s presidency. A full survey of this material has yet to be concluded, but even a targeted reading of a few hundred cables points to a yawning chasm between the Assad regime’s public rhetoric about mumanaa (anti-imperial resistance) and its actual maneuverings. Today, as Assad continues to be championed by some on the Arab Left as a Gramscian paladin, gamely leading a war of position against hegemonic Empire and the global capitalistic elite, it is worth revisiting the WikiLeaks corpus to set the record straight.
Assad’s assurance to Murphy about Hezbollah’s pragmatism is a leitmotif that is repeated in several other cables. It is regularly accompanied by Syrian earnestness about resuming peace negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. In 2002, Assad told Congressman David Price: “Off the record, I can say I want peace. But I can’t tell that to the media, because no one wants to hear it.” A couple years later, Assad took a further step by confiding to Spanish officials that he was willing to relinquish all water and navigation rights of Lake Tiberias, as long as Syria retained the symbolic significance of having recovered all of its territory.
By 2008, Assad had lost his squeamishness about publicly voicing a desire for peace, because his government was deep in negotiations with Israel. Lasting approximately eight months before they were interrupted by the Gaza War, Assad admitted to a US congressional delegation that “these talks had achieved more than several years of direct negotiations with Israel in the 1990s.” A flurry of cables speculated about the strategic re-orientation that a peace agreement might bring about. An advisor to Walid al-Muallim suggested that Assad was trying to a walk a tight-rope between Iran and Turkey, assessing the possibilities that Syria could slowly wean itself off Iran in exchange for stronger relations with the West and the Arab world. This, too, was the Israeli hope for the talks, and also that of high-ranking “moderate” elements within the Syrian regime itself.
From the perspective of Marxist admirers of Assad, however, such signals by the regime could only make sense as part of a canny strategy to disrupt Empire by distracting it with promises of docile behavior. In that event, Empire fell for it hard, as Assad was actively courted in European capitals in 2008, and by American congressional delegations in 2009, promising peace (plus a room for Ehud Olmert at the Damascus Four Seasons), strong bilateral relations with the US, and a change in priorities from national security to social and economic reform. This was all brilliant anti-imperialist maneuvering, one assumes, but it still made the Iranians jumpy.
No less counter-hegemonic was Syria’s active involvement in intelligence sharing with Western powers, which continued even through the toughest days of its isolation. From a cable dated September 2005, we learn that there existed a “long-standing liaison relationship between French and Syrian security services,” and that Assad’s brother-in-law and top security chief Asif Shawkat made a habit of visiting Paris no less than twice a year to compare notes with his opposite numbers. Another cable suggests that US-Syrian intelligence cooperation had previously run through Shawkat, whose value to the United States was touted by Walid al-Muallim.
In 2010, a meeting between Syrian General Intelligence Director Ali Mamlouk and US Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin in February 2010 confirms that the Syrians were happy to resume intelligence cooperation provided they were given “a lead role” in the efforts (perhaps evincing a subtle desire to supplant the Jordanians as the go-to intelligence experts in the region). At this meeting, Vice Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad “spoke at length about his fondness” for Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman.
Syria’s involvement with the West extended beyond military and intelligence cooperation and began to include stronger economic ties, particularly after Barack Obama came into office. A major petroleum deal was signed with France in 2008, and Syria fast-tracked its efforts to sign an association agreement with the European Union in 2010. In 2009, President Assad welcomed a group of American hedge fund managers and private equity investors to Damascus as part of a bid to court more foreign investment in Syria (and to combat neoliberalism, presumably), and relations with Turkey and Qatar hit an all-time high.
One could go on at great length documenting Syria’s track record of reaching out to the United States, Europe, and the GCC countries during Bashar al-Assad’s presidency. What conclusions to draw? Does the record suggest that the regime is a cynical clique of corrupt collaborators paying lip service to the Axis of Resistance as they secretly deal against it? Given the considerable capital Syria has invested in its alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, this would be a facile oversimplification.
What the diplomatic cables actually reveal is that Syria’s foreign policy, like that of most countries, is too complex to be boiled down to cartoonish catchphrases like “anti-imperialist” or “democracy promoting.” Syria’s government has always juggled competing political, economic, and security-related demands from diverse constituencies while prioritizing its own survival. As important as the Palestinian cause is to the Baath for ideological reasons, it represents only a small part of its broader strategic calculations.
Had 2011 been an unexceptional year in the Middle East, it would not be difficult to imagine today’s diplomatic cables winging their way to Washington from Damascus with news of further “measurable progress” in the bilateral relationship, additional hedge fund investments enabled by loosened sanctions, new memorandums of understanding signed with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, more high-profile European and American visits, requests for help arranging puff pieces in Vogue and Vanity Fair, and promises to play the role of Washington’s dragoman with Tehran.
This was the “liberalizing” course that Bashar al-Assad had publicly set for his government, long before the clock ran out. The Leninist account of Assad’s struggle with Empire may make for stirring commentary, but it is a hagiography at best.
Elias Muhanna is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University, and the author of Qifa Nabki, a blog about Levantine history and politics.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.