Comment: Syria – The Strange Case of Dr Enemy and Mr Ally

Sebastiao Martins 25 September 2011

“Men must be either won over or destroyed.”

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

For the past weeks we have witnessed mounting political pressure from the US and its allies on the Syrian regime which has been preventing the peaceful assembly of anti-government protesters in cities across the country.

On August 12th, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on all nations ‘to get on the right side of history’, that is to say to back the US in severing any commercial ties – mainly oil and gas-related – which give Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad ‘comfort in his brutality.’

Internationally, this provoked a mixed reaction. For while some countries like the UK, Germany and France welcomed this appeal wholeheartedly, China, India and Russia have responded to it by expressing their fears that issuing a ban on Syrian oil imports and related products will also inevitably harm the general population and small businesses of that nation.

Nonetheless, the US certainly yields effectual power within the international community, and after President Obama deemed al-Assad unfit to rule and demanded that he step down on August 19th, the UK, France, Germany and Canada seconded his position.

In addition, the EU has issued travel bans and frozen the assets of 35 Syrian government officials, and are also considering exacting its sanctions not simply on those involved in the crackdown on Syrian protesters, but also on the people who directly benefit from the regime itself.

A casualty of the domino effect of the Arab Spring – which since January of 2011 has swept over other countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and also Saudi Arabia – Syria has witnessed a maelstrom of mass protests which have been repeatedly met with violence and repression from state authorities.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in London, reported recently that 1,600 civilians and 370 security forces have died since protests began in mid-March.

It would seem that, in what again Hillary Clinton called in a TV interview ‘the spirit of the Arab Awakening,’ the US is in tune with the Syrian ‘people’s needs’ for a ‘genuine transition to democracy.’ Will Syria be made safer for democracy and its own people? Or for the United States and their own strategic interests?

Firstly, let us step back for a moment and, by contextualizing, measure how serious the US are in their moral condemnation of al-Assad’s ‘brutality’ and in what again Clinton called in another statement the US’ regret the loss of life’ in Syria.

The overall relationship between the two countries seems to have been one at times promising sunshine, at others often threatened by gathering clouds. But, certainly, the crushing of any anti-regime resistance in Syria by the al-Assad family regime is not an all-shocking new revelation for the US.

The US Department of State’s website reads that “upon assuming power , Hafiz al-Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly dealt with.”

From 1976, the Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the regime, which was permanently crushed in 1982, culminating in the bloody Hama massacre which claimed 40,000 Sunni Muslims, according to the Syrian Human Rights Committee.

However, in 1976 Syria was playing an important role in Lebanon by sending in troops to back the Lebanese government and the Christian right-wing forces against the Palestinian guerrillas which Syria itself had been actively supporting.

This invasion was at least temporarily favourable to US/Israeli security interests regarding that country, and further more to the whole Israel/Palestine conflict. Indeed, it is well known that both nations welcomed Syria’s intervention, while Syria’s stand among other Arab countries took a nose dive.

Coincidentally, nothing compared to the high pitched condemnation of Syria’s actions this year was expressed when Hafiz al-Assad’s ‘brutality’ was claiming innocent civilians at the time – but then the government was playing the role of Mr Ally in Lebanon.

Leading Israeli scholar Moshe Ma’oz claimed in 2005 that ‘Assad was a more brutal tyrant than his son has proved to be and was guilty of many of the same “transgressions” of which Bashar is currently being accused.’ It is clear, then, that the US are not seriously concerned about the Syrian ‘people’s needs.’

To accept this premise we would have to wonder why Washington kept silent not only during Hafiz’ regime but during the current and equally important protests which have taken place in Bahrain. Authorities there have also claimed civilian lives by opening fire on protesters, as one Al Jazeera correspondent stated in February.

Surely they would have to be outspoken critics of such a conduct, but then Bahrain is an important ally of Washington, where the US Navy 5th Fleet is currently deployed, charged with monitoring and protecting the Persian Gulf. Some of its sailors, as the US Navy website states, are ‘assigned with the primary responsibility of security and protection of the terminal.’

In addition, the US would also have to be against the conduct of one of the staunchest allies of Washington in the region, Saudi Arabia. In March of this year King Abudllah hit his fist on the table and vowed to use all means ‘to prevent attempts to disrupt public order.’

As a result, a ban was issued on the protest rallies which erupted across the country, where people marched the streets against unequal economic opportunities and unlawful detentions by the regime. Not so much as a peep was heard from the marble hallways of that city upon a hill.

Why then, are the US not mounting political pressure on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia but on Syria? On occasion the regime was at least tolerable for the West as we have seen. And in fact it remained so until recently.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to remove forces of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). However, in 1984 a major uprising of Muslim militias, coupled with the nearing withdrawal of US Marines shook Israel’s capacity to succeed. To make matters worse, there was a virtual collapse of the Lebanese Army.

Again, pro-PLO Syria went from a staunch enemy attempting to seize Lebanon as a sort of ‘Western Syria’ to a temporary ally, proving key to re-establishing control of the situation with the US’ and Israel’s blessing.

To give another example of this ever-shifting Western stance towards an ever-shifting and unpredictable Syria, in 1991 US-Syrian cooperation resumed when US interests in kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait coincided with Syria’s, an ally of Iran, in turn an enemy of Iraq. Syria thus joined the Western coalition to slap Saddam’s wrist out of a strangled neighbouring state. Again coincidentally, a frail period of peace between Syria and the US and Israel ensued.

However, in 2003 – three years after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his deceased father in power – this back and forth of conflict/cooperation between the two nations was disrupted, turning perhaps irrevocably to the former when Syria openly opposed the US’ invasion of Iraq.

In October of that same year, President George W. Bush finally took the leash off of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act (SALSA) – a set of economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria – which had been put in place by the US Congress since 2002, but had been withheld by the Executive for strategic reasons.

One year later the France and US-sponsored Resolution 1559 was ushered through the United Nation’s Security Council, demanding the ousting of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

This was passed even though Secretary-General of the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Mohammad Issa opposed the measure by arguing the right to national sovereignty, stating that Syrian forces were stationed in Lebanon at the bequest of the Lebanese government and to act as a deterrent against Israeli military incursions.

It would seem that the contours of a punishment on Syria were in fact taking shape for its unwillingness to follow US strategy or, as Secretary of State put it graciously, its unwillingness ‘to be on the right side of history.’

The Syrian government made some attempts at falling on Washington’s graces yet again, trying to play Mr Ally once more in the withdrawal of its 17,000 troops from Lebanon and in its engaging in ‘limited cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts’, as the US Department of State website describes the country’s cooperation in preventing any aid from reaching Iraqi insurgents through its territory and in capturing Al-Qaeda operatives.

It appeared that unfixable damage had been done, and George W. Bush shrugged his shoulders to what the government called Syria’s ‘hollow measures’ against terror and for Washington’s plans for ‘a New Middle East’, as Condoleezza Rice called it.

In fact, the relationship had turned so sour that in Bush’s last speech at the United Nations in late 2008 he blacklisted Syria and Iran for what he viewed as their persistent ‘sponsoring of terror’ and their consequent and growing isolation. There was clearly no going back for moody Syria in the US’ understanding. It had been targeted, and pressure to remove the regime has mounted ever since.

If one were to consider all nations as individuals, then Syria, in Washington’s perception of the past years, would be someone with an acute personality disorder. Frequent mood swings. Stormy relationships. Difficulty making friends. Social isolation.

How, then, do you deal with someone with this clinical ailment? This brings us to 2011, a year in which the US were not simply and allegedly ‘on the right side of history’ but they were also at the right time in history to confront a long unreliable Syria and its shifting humours.

First, you try the soft approach, having an open discussion about your concerns for that person’s stability. The US have done just that in the past months, expressing their fears that violent measures from state authorities to deal with peaceful protesters were not the best way forward.

As Syria turned deaf ears on Washington’s soft talk, the latter slightly mounted the pressure, advising that Syria should seek professional help, professional help being clear prescriptions scribbled by the US: immediate stop to civilian casualties; immediate reforms leading to an inevitable regime change.

Syria, in turn, enacted what Washington again dubbed, this time through Hillary Clinton, as hollow measures. As a result, the boycott ensued last week, followed by Obama’s demanding of the ousting of the al-Assad regime.

It is perhaps likely that toppling the regime through military intervention will be the next logical step, one which will perhaps be delayed for the time being primarily by Russia.

Of course, true concerns for the (Syrian) protesters are not the issue here as has been shown. The issue is the non-trustworthy (for the US) regime which sealed its fate long before the ‘Arab Awakening.’ The ‘Arab Awakening’ is simply the right time in history for Washington.

But one last thing should be said. If indeed the US sponsor a UN coalition, or even an Israeli military operation to topple al-Assad’s regime which will be replaced by a more reliable one – democratic or not – then there is no question about what will follow in the future.

In his 16th century book The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli puts forth the following stratagem for running a state/empire:

“Anyone in a country which differs from his own should make himself the leader and protector of the smaller neighbouring powers, and he should endeavour to weaken those which are strong This is what happens: as soon as a powerful foreigner invades a country all the weaker powers give him their support All he has to watch is that they do not build up too much strength and too much authority; and with his own strength and their support he can easily hold down those who are powerful and so make himself, in everything, the master of the country.”

In the Middle East, one can almost draw a full circle of both old and new, stable and fragile US strategic allies – Azerbaijan, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

Syria’s unreliability of course makes it a non-ally for the time being, and therefore at least one of the missing keys of this circle. And in the centre of it lies the strongest power – Iran.

Sebastiao Martins