Gregory Harms writes in a guest op-ed for Informed Comment
The influential Egyptian Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently issued a fatwa, or religious proclamation, with regard to Syria. The sheik called for Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East to join the rebels in their fight against the regime in Damascus. Formerly an advocate of improved relations between the Sunni and Shiite sects, including the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla organization Hizballah, Qaradawi’s decree further points to sectarian relations moving in the opposite direction. A week earlier, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah openly declared involvement in the civil war on the side of Damascus and promised victory. Sectarian lines – within Syria and across the greater region – are growing sharper by the minute.
At the geopolitical level, Russia announced its intentions to ship its S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in an effort to bolster the government’s defenses and preserve a balance of power. Included in Moscow’s calculus is the potential military involvement of the United States and NATO.
In trying to follow the news coverage, one is presented with an ever increasing number of narrative strands having less and less to do with Syria. The question is raised, Is there historical ground where the different threads meet?
Currently on display in Syria is just about every major issue the modern Middle East has come to know and be known for. Within the ongoing civil war now raging up and down the country, one can find how the region was created, how it has been ruled locally, how it has been managed externally, and the different byproducts of these realities. This conflict is not simply a dark chapter in the Arab Spring, or just another episode of Middle Eastern violence, but the consequence of policies and phenomena that have their origins in the twentieth century.
Syria, like its fellow Arab neighbors, was born of Western European scheming. After World War I, the Great Powers of Britain and France divided up the Middle East into modern nation-states, Syria being among these new and future countries. Designed by the French, Syria was to exist in the service of its creator, similar to other French colonial holdings at the time. Simply put, it was to provide a source of cheap food and materials as well as a place to unload French exports.
Because Syria was conceived as a vassal state, it was kept politically compliant and feeble. Local landowning political elites essentially governed Syria on France’s behalf. One of the principal concerns was to ensure calm against an increasingly indignant and restless population. This was achieved with a measure of anti-imperial rhetoric – purely propaganda – while dutifully tending to French needs; the political relationship with Paris was called “honorable cooperation.” At the end of the day, the unsurprising goal of the Syrian notables was to protect their own wealth and power. This situation, according to Middle East historian William Cleveland, created an “aura of unreality.”
This period spanned the two world wars to Syria’s independence in 1946. What followed was a series of military coups, producing leaders such as Colonel Abid Shishkali and others seeking a grip on the country’s future. Yet, these juntas were factionally unstable and produced repeated internal overthrows. What endured from this era, however, was the military’s new role in Syrian political life.
Out of the tumultuous post-independence years also emerged a nationalist-socialist party called the Baath (meaning Resurrection or Renaissance). The Baath Party championed Arab nationalism and sought to unify the Arab world under a singular system. In 1957, the Baath Party achieved power in Syria, briefly formed a union (as a junior partner) with Egypt, and then lost power. After the union with Egypt dissolved (1961), a group of military officers sought to reestablish Baath rule. (The party was originally a civilian, populist movement, but had been co-opted by the military.) Also volatile and prone to overthrows, this cabal became mired in infighting. After a sequence of coups and power plays, one member of the military committee running the country rose to stable power in 1970: Hafez al-Assad. His autocratic regime would last until the year 2000, when he would be replaced by his son, Bashar al-Assad. Like his father, Assad the younger has operated a regime marked by one-party rule, secret police, and total authority.
As of the 1950s, the United States had taken over for Britain and France and established a long-distance supremacy over the prized Middle East. Among Washington’s first client states in the area were oil-rich Saudi Arabia and militant Israel – referred to as the “twin pillars” – and remain so today. Jordan, Iran in 1953, and eventually the leaderships of Egypt, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf states all became aligned with US interests – in fact, almost the whole of the region.
Up until 1989, American policy in the Middle East was formulated in the context of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. While a much overemphasized issue, Moscow did have regional interests of its own, and included in them was US meddling in an area located in the Kremlin’s backyard. Nevertheless, Russian intrigue and influence in the Middle East has generally been limited. Among the places the Soviets were able to create a bit of leverage – leverage that still exists today – was through Damascus.
Unlike most of the Arab states, Syria under Hafez al-Assad steered a course in opposition to the United States and its regional sentry Israel. Throughout the decades following its independence in 1948, Tel Aviv had made it abundantly clear that it had no intention of living in harmony with its Arab neighbors. Moreover, in 1967, Israel occupied the Golan Heights located in the southwest corner of Syria, an occupation that continues into the present. The Assad regime, having Moscow as a sponsor and source of weaponry, spent the next decade vastly expanding its military. Common to Arab leaders throughout the modern period, Assad too sought the mantle of leader of the Arab world, and used enmity toward Israel to establish credibility.
That said, Hafez nor Bashar managed to regain the Golan Heights. And for all its military expenditures, Syria remains a second-rate power on the Middle Eastern stage, the rhetoric always more dramatic than genuine. Furthermore, besides remaining unable or unwilling to address the Golan issue one way or another, the antagonism Damascus did instigate was usually in the direction of other Arab states and entities such as Lebanon, the PLO, Iraq, and others. Beyond seeking increased prestige in the Arab world, the regimes of both Assads have been focused more on domestic threats and protection of their own internal security.
In addition to the creation, leadership, and foreign influence of Syria over the years, three intra-regional factors in the current state of affairs, also echoes of the twentieth century, should be mentioned.
First, Iran supports and supplies Damascus. This is one of the first issues one reads about in the American press. Tehran’s actions in this regard oppose the US-Israeli dynamic. This friction has its origins in the 1979 Iranian revolution, which saw the replacement of the Shah, a US-installed puppet, with the Islamist leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. The current leadership in Tehran is merely a successor of his rule and an outcome of Anglo-American intervention in Iran. For the last thirty years, US-Iranian relations have been kept tense by the United States.
Second, Hizballah supports Bashar al-Assad, is assisting on the ground, and is itself supported and supplied by the Iranians. The militia, regardless of what one thinks of it, would never have emerged had Israel not occupied southern Lebanon for almost twenty years (until 2000) after its devastating assault on that country in 1982. Hizballah is a consequence of Israeli belligerence.
Third, the issue of Islamic extremism has also entered the frame in Syria. The armed resistance called the Free Syrian Army, far from being a unified front, is a patchwork. Radical Islamic groups within the FSA such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliated organization, and Ahrar al-Sham are the heirs of two main ideologies. The first is Islamism, which has its roots in the 1920s and was a political response to Western domination. The goal here was revolution and overthrow of local regimes. The second ideology is a more violent, reactionary approach to Islamism that developed in the second half of the twentieth century, ultimately personified by Osama bin Laden. The idea here is that overthrowing local regimes fails to address the issue of Western imperialism. These ideologies have never gained popular appeal in the Middle East; but be that as it may, the different Islamist and jihadist groups – ranging from moderate to terrorist – taken in aggregate constitute an expression of resentment. In other words, this phenomenon is a response to Western European and US policy.
Moreover, these three issues are typically considered not in relationship to their importance for Syria, but rather their salience for Western security and power. The radical Sunnis form a small part of the uprising against the Baath government, but reporting on them has recently crowded out other and more representative narratives.
The elements making up the current civil war in Syria were created throughout the last hundred years. The leadership in Damascus today is a direct result of the country’s political history. In a sense, Bashar al-Assad is a corollary of the French policies put in place over forty years before he was born. The resistance to his leadership – part of the wider Arab Spring uprisings beginning in 2011 – is a rejection of both his regime and European-American hegemony, present and past. These are the core realities of the current violence.
Where does the United States stand given its historical role? Washington is obviously somewhat concerned about Syria and would like to see a pro-American result. If Bashar al-Assad falls, which is a distinct possibility, then the White House will use its influence to tip the outcome in its favor. (This is not always possible, especially in the new Middle East.) If Assad remains, the United States can deal with him. He is a known quantity, has cooperated with the White House in the past, and poses little threat the rest of the time. And Syria’s general nonalignment with US policy and its alliance with Iran, Hizballah, and Russia – all overstated foreign policy concerns – helps feed the rationale for constantly weaponizing the Middle East, an enormous gift to the US defense contractors.
As mentioned, Syria is located in the region’s second tier, which means it is less than a crucial issue for American planners. Syria has a GDP of $59 billion, economically placing it between Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic and making it 127 out of 190 countries for per capita gross national product. Syria does have a little oil, but not enough to gain it much attention. Its proven oil reserves measure in at 2.5 billion barrels, putting it on a par with Great Britain. In contrast, Saudi Arabia has reserves of 262 billion barrels, Iraq 115 billion, and Kuwait 104 billion.
What does concern planners in Washington is overall regional stability, which the Syrian civil war could threaten. Lebanon and Iraq have already been affected. Low grade tensions are tolerable – even encouraged – but the temperature in Syria might be high enough to warrant top-level diplomacy from the White House and the office of Russian president Vladimir Putin. (This is currently being explored but remains to be seen.) Without external diplomatic assistance, regardless of the dubious records of those involved, the war could possibly grind on for years to come.
In the meantime, it is common to hear facile or racist conclusions drawn because of the bloodshed and disorder in areas like the Middle East, where patterns of repression and resistance seem to play out endlessly. Yet, when the different countries became “independent,” it would take decades for the results of the manner in which they were created to fully unfold, to say nothing of the foreign influence along the way. At this very moment, we are seeing the effects of the twentieth century. The policies now relegated to history books are, in some ways, on the news every day in grim detail. The common dismissal of the historical record contained in the assertion “that was then” could not be more inaccurate.
It is in the present where one can find the historical record: amidst the sectarian strife, the fatwas, declarations, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, refugee camps, arms embargoes, weapons shipments, and a list of actors – state and non-state alike – vying for position and influence. As is common, geostrategic maneuvering tends to converge in smaller, weaker countries, and produce a range of dire repercussions. At the moment, Syria encapsulates the history of the modern Middle East.
Gregory Harms is an independent scholar focusing on the Middle East