Still Struggling for Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

David W. Lesch

Dr. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. He is the author or editor of 14 books, including Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad and Syria and the United States: Eisenhower’s Cold War in the Middle East.

Fifty years ago, the eminent British journalist and author Patrick Seale published a landmark book, The Struggle for Syria, in which he examines the tumultuous post-independence period (after 1946). The general unrest was brought on by, among other things, Syria’s own immature political institutions and ambiguous national identity, but also — and this is the focus of Seale’s work — the multi-dimensional interference by an array of regional and international powers looking to influence Damascus in the midst of two overlapping cold wars, one among Arabs and the other between the superpowers. Through any means necessary — bribery, propaganda, political pressure and covert (and sometimes overt) military action — these external players attempted to manipulate a fractured Syrian polity for the sake of strategic self-interest.

The culmination of this “struggle” occurred during and immediately after what I have called the American-Syrian crisis of 1957. In August of that year, Syrian intelligence uncovered a U.S. plot to overthrow a government in Damascus that the Eisenhower administration believed was perilously close to becoming a Soviet client-state in the heart of the Middle East. This episode brought together (and into the open) the matrix of domestic, regional and international forces that had been at work in Syria during the previous decade. The crisis improved the position in Syria of Washington’s putative foes in the Middle East at the time, Egypt and the Soviet Union. The two countries were able to insert themselves into the Syrian mix more aggressively, in order to ostensibly protect Syria from U.S./Western machinations. The whole affair petered out by the end of 1957, but it laid the foundation for the merger of Egypt and Syria in early 1958 into the ill-fated United Arab Republic (UAR).

This incident illustrates the noticeable divergence of Soviet and Egyptian interests as the crisis unfolded, despite the fact that, at least on the surface, they were mutually trying to “save” Syria from the pernicious activities of the West. Egypt’s president, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, had worked hard to keep Syria from joining pro-West defense schemes in the region (such as the Baghdad Pact), thus preventing his country’s isolation at the hands of his regional rival at the time, Iraq. He wasn’t about to lose the assets he had cultivated in Syria to another country, even the Soviet Union, with which he had had a strategic but uneasy partnership.

In the end, with the formation of the UAR, Egypt “won” Syria, although it was a victory more pyrrhic than real. Certainly Moscow had improved its position in Syria, but Nasser’s Egypt had many more entry points into the country, giving it a distinct advantage over the relatively distant superpower. Although important to Moscow, Syria’s orientation was practically an existential issue for Cairo; therefore, its ability to intervene in Syrian affairs was matched by its motivation.

This historical episode provides some instructive parallels to the situation today in Syria. As in the 1950s, since the outbreak of the uprising of 2011, there have been (and still are) regional and international actors wanting to remove the Syrian regime, including the United States and its European allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Others still support that government, most prominently Russia and Iran. The constellation of forces arrayed against Damascus now are the same as those in 1957. On the other side again stands Moscow, but Iran has replaced Egypt as the predominant regional power supporting the Syrian regime and its president, Bashar al-Assad. In many ways, the proxy conflict that Syria has become reflects a new Middle East cold war, intermixed with the tensions between Washington and Moscow.

As Ibrahim Hamidi points out in his probing article, “The Russo-Iranian Struggle for Syria,” (NOW, March 2, 2015), Russia and Iran have different sets of interests as well as capabilities regarding the nature of their support for Assad. Russia provides financial and military support, but its primary contribution has been in the international arena, especially at the United Nations. It has wielded considerable diplomatic muscle — and its Security Council veto — to ward off resolutions that might ultimately lead to Western-sponsored military intervention of the kind dispatched to Libya in 2011, resulting in the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi. Moscow’s support for Damascus is based as much on saving national prestige and preventing the West from once again unilaterally engaging in regime change as it is on strategic factors related to protecting a Russian foothold in the heartland of the Middle East.

Iran sees its involvement in Syria, as Egypt viewed its own interests in the 1950s, as much more existential. It is as if the loss of Syria to pro-Western anti-Iranian forces would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Middle East, leading to Teheran’s further isolation and ultimately the Islamic Republic’s demise as a regional power. As in the 1950s, Syria is seen as the lynchpin, and Iran has essentially gone “all in” to support its regime, the continuance of which will also maintain Iran’s all-important access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Along with copious amounts of financial assistance, Iran, unlike Russia, also has sent important elements of its military forces to fight, along with Hezbollah, against Syrian armed-opposition groups.

Iran’s involvement in Syria has led many to assume that Assad has become captive to Tehran’s agenda and that his country has become an Iranian client-state. This fear has reverberated in Israel. The Netanyahu government no longer sees Syria at its border along the Golan Heights; instead, the enemy at the gates is Iran. No doubt, this was at least in part the reason behind Israel’s January attack in the Golan Heights that killed both Iranian and Hezbollah forces. And no doubt this is one of the reasons Netanyahu opposes a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal. Washington might begin to see Tehran as part of the solution in Syria rather than the problem, thus enhancing Iran’s presence in Israel’s back yard.

The deepening of the Syrian-Iranian relationship, however, has been in the works since Bashar al-Assad came to power. It gained steam following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; at the time, Damascus was widely assumed to be the culprit. The ensuing international isolation of Syria compelled Assad to embrace the few friends he had left, none more so than Iran.

Ironically, the fact that Assad has remained in power long past many early predictions and is likely to continue well into the foreseeable future has muted the calls for his removal by many of the countries originally set against him, including the United States. Of course, this new dynamic has been accelerated by the rise of the Islamic State, seen by most in the West and in the region as the greater evil. Tolerating, if not establishing a working relationship with, Assad has recently become policy by default. In a way, it has transformed the struggle against Syria once again into a struggle for Syria. As a result, heightened Iranian influence in Syria is now seen (or feared by some) as a potential fixture in the regional landscape. A weary international community is currently more interested in degrading the Islamic State and restoring a semblance of regional stability and predictability. This is music to the ears of autocrats.

The Eisenhower administration acquiesced in the Egyptian “takeover” of Syria in 1957-58 and gave its blessing to the formation of the UAR. The United States at that time ultimately succumbed to reality: it could not shape events to its liking. From the perspective of Washington, at least Syria had not totally been gathered into the orbit of the Soviet Union. Better that Arab nationalists control Damascus than the greater evil, Soviet communism.

Syrians, however, are a fiercely independent people with a rich history. While some ambiguity might still linger regarding a distinct Syrian national identity (as opposed to an ethnic or religious one), there is an intense dislike of kowtowing to an outside power, no matter how weak or fractured Syria might be. Beyond that, the Syrian-Iranian alliance is a strange one. Born out of a necessity perceived by Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, in the wake of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty — and the resurgence of Iraq, which served to isolate, if not threaten, Syria — the relationship with Iran has always been primarily strategic. It was never an alliance based on common political systems or sociocultural ideologies. After all, Iran is an Islamic republic, in essence a Shiite theocracy of predominantly Persian ethnicity. The ruling regime in Syria, on the other hand, is officially Baathist. Although the Baath party’s ideological edifice has long been stripped away by an authoritarianism born out of chronic instability, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the embodiment of Arab socialism and secular nationalism. For Syrians, most of whom are Sunni, particularly those who bought into or were co-opted by the Syrian state, although they understood the benefits of the alliance, they always felt it was unnatural. No doubt many Iranians have felt the same way.

Politically, economically and militarily Syria’s merger with Egypt in 1958 was real, if ineffectual. Nasser was the president of the UAR, and the Syrian leadership subordinated itself to him and his ruling apparatus. Although there was certainly a power disparity in Egypt’s favor, similar in some ways to that between Syria and Iran today, Egypt, culturally, ethnically, linguistically and historically, had much more in common with Syria than Iran does today. Yet the UAR failed spectacularly; indeed, a critical mass of the Syrian political and business elite engineered Syria’s secession in 1961.

Circumstances currently are different, of course, the most obvious being the four-year war that has destroyed much of the country and displaced millions. Additionally, despite the tightening relationship after 2005, Bashar al-Assad has acted in opposition to the wishes of his Iranian allies on several occasions. He directly negotiated a potential peace agreement with Israel; he initially supported a different leadership in postwar Iraq; and he pursued better relations with the West once he started to come in from the cold following the Hariri assassination.

Bashar and some other elements of the Syrian leadership have always seen the United States as a potential escape valve, in retaining its diplomatic flexibility, particularly if it leads to the eventual return of the Golan Heights from Israel. The course of the current conflict restricted that space, but the changing dynamics with the rise of the Islamic State in conjunction with economic and diplomatic factors appear to have opened up some of that space again in the eyes of Damascus. This perhaps explains, at least in part, Syria’s willingness these days to engage in various processes to ameliorate hostilities if not produce a political settlement. In effect, Assad is once again attempting to come in from the cold perhaps, holding on long enough for changing regional circumstances to cast him in a more favorable light.

Perhaps the Syrian regime has become so dependent on Iran militarily and economically for its very survival that the debt to pay in the aftermath, if there is one, will be crippling. Iran’s penetration of Syrian society and politics, as Hamidi wrote, more from the bottom-up than Russia’s top-down approach, will make it almost impossible for Syria to extricate itself from Teheran’s clutches. It is possible that the war has changed Assad’s position regarding the United States and his preference to look toward the West rather than the East. Various indications from Assad as well as some Syrian emissaries still indicate otherwise, but one never knows how such national traumas can affect one’s Weltanschauung.

The struggle for Syria tragically continues, but for those worried about Syria’s becoming something of a province of Iran, they would do well to remember the UAR. Ultimately, in my opinion, it must be a struggle that the Syrians figure out for themselves with an assist from the international community. It will continue to be a chaotic process, and it may take a generation to consolidate the state. When that day comes, it should be a Syrian-generated solution that finally results in a country that is, in the words of author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anti-fragile — and free, once and for all, from deleterious external interference.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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