Syria politics: Roads to Damascus


Syria is becoming increasingly comfortable with its regional position. It is being courted by all sides with political interests at stake in the Middle East, and its fledgling market economy is attracting the attention of serious international investors. How secure is this comfort zone that Syria has managed to create?

The arrival in Damascus on March 31st of Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze minority, was symbolic of the political and diplomatic advances that Syria has made in the past few years. Mr Jumblatt has oscillated between allegiance to Damascus and fierce criticism of the Syrian regime. After the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the architect ofLebanon’s post-war reconstruction, in February 2005, Mr Jumblatt was unrestrained in his attacks on Syria and its president, Bashar al-Assad. However, since his failed bid in May 2008 to strip away some of the powers of Hizbullah, the heavily armed Lebanese Shia group backed by Syria and Iran, Mr Jumblatt has reverted to deference to Damascus. He even absented himself from a ceremony on March 16th to mark the anniversary of the assassination of his own father in 1977 by presumed Syrian agents, and he used the medium of Al Jazeera television station to apologise for some of his earlier remarks about the Syrian leader. Mr Assad finally consented to grant an audience to Mr Jumblatt, who was quoted by the official Syrian news agency as praising his host’s commitment to upholding Lebanon’s security and stability and endorsing “resistance” against Israel.

The appearance of Mr Jumblatt in Damascus and the earlier visit of Saad al-Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, in December mark the abandonment of the quest launched by the March 14th movement in 2005 for a form of Western-guaranteed independence forLebanon. Syria maintains that this quest arose from the excessive zeal of the Bush administration (supported in this instance by France, under the presidency of Jacques Chirac) to impose their own vision on the region without having properly thought through the likely consequences. There is now broad international acceptance of the balance of power in Lebanon, in which the allies of Syria and Iran wield ultimate control over security policy within a government of all factions. That acceptance does not always equate to approval—the new US ambassador designate to Damascus, Robert Ford, for example, expressed concern during his confirmation hearings in Congress about Syria’s role in helping Hizbullah to upgrade its weapons systems—but there is no appetite for a return to the Bush-Chirac era of pressure on Syria over Lebanon.

US-Israeli breach

The recent very public disagreements between the Obama administration and Israel have given Mr Assad a good opportunity to rehearse his argument that the US should be prepared to put pressure on Israel to make the meaningful concessions necessary to achieve a lasting Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Mr Assad places his policy of resistance—or backing Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad—in this context, maintaining that Arab offers of conciliation have been tried before without satisfactory results. However, Mr Assad also has to reckon with the fact that Barack Obama faces constraints from a viscerally pro-Israel Congress, and he has to take into account Syria’s vulnerability on both the military and economic fronts. Joshua Landis, a prominent commentator on Syrian affairs, argues in his blog that this is a reason for Syria to bolster its resistance credentials through all means: “building up Hizbullah, acquiring nuclear capability, developing better weapons, using Iran to scare Israel, upgrading its economy and relations with important powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and France”. This list is a fair summary of Mr Assad’s actual policies, but some of the items would appear to contradict others—most glaringly, it is questionable whether Syria’s economic progress and continued good relations with France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would be compatible with an all-out drive to develop nuclear weapons, or indeed to try to achieve conventional military parity with Israel. Perhaps mistakenly, many Western and Israeli policy analysts assume that “resistance” is a ploy, and that self-interest will ultimately induce Syria to strike a deal whereby it would regain the Golan Heights in return for signing a peace treaty with Israel and dropping its anti-Israeli allies.

Iraqi conundrum

There are also elements of contradiction in Syria’s stance towards Iraq. Syria has a major economic stake in Iraq’s stability and prosperity. According to the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics, Iraq was by far the country’s largest export market in 2008, accounting for S£118bn (US$2.5bn) out of Syria’s total exports of S£708bn. Syria has nevertheless faced accusations from the US and from Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, of colluding in the activities of al-Qaida and Baathist subversives based on its soil. Mr Maliki now looks to be in trouble, having failed to secure the largest number of seats in the general election, owing to the major gains by Ayad Allawi, whose cross-sectarian Iraqiya list virtually swept the board in Sunni Arab areas of the country. An Allawi-led government would appear to suit Syria’s interests, as it would be likely to foster stability in the Sunni-dominated provinces along the border, and could prompt more Iraqi refugees to return home. Such a government would also be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, and could trigger increased investment in Syria by Saudi banks and companies targeting the Iraqi market. A Sunni Arab tilt of this kind might not fit in with Iran’s wishes, but Mr Assad could have an opportunity to play a role in brokering a compromise—Mr Allawi in any event would be unable to form a government, or even take part in one, without working with some Iranian-backed factions. The first round of deliberations among Iraqi parties about the complexion of the new government took place in Tehran, much to the dismay of Mr Allawi. The second is likely to be held in Damascus.