By Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
June 19, 2012
Chief among Third-Wayers’ denunciations against the Assad regime’s foreign policy record are accusations that relate to its alleged history of defeat, and later quietism, vis-à-vis Israel, as well as its persecution and cynical use of Lebanese and Palestine groups resisting the Zionist state. For these detractors, the Assad leadership’s anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist stances amount to little more than public posturing intended to preserve its popular legitimacy and is therefore of negligible strategic value to the resistance axis. While many of those making this argument are merely engaging in ex-post facto rationalization – that is, formulating retrospective explanations to justify their current position – this depiction of the Syrian regime as having “colluded” with imperialism in the past, warrants a comprehensive response, if only to underline the centrality of Assad’s Syria to the resistance project and the Palestinian cause generally.
Realism Versus Constructivism
The core problem with the Third Way historical meta-narrative is that it rests on political Realism, a school of thought which dominates the American tradition of the International Relations discipline. The Realist school views states as essentially self-interested actors, who pursue their security and the same predefined economic, political and military interests at the expense of ideological values and principles. While Realism is a useful theoretical tool for explaining some aspects of Syrian foreign policy, by no means does it account for it in its entirety, and even less so in the case of Bashar al-Assad’s regional policy. However, most Third Way intellectuals who study Syria adopt the Realist approach and consequently, reduce all Syrian foreign policy to power politics, while viewing the regime – a view which invariably conflates Hafez al-Assad’s with Bashar’s rule – as governed by considerations of crude realpolitik and regime/state interests, which it would readily sacrifice its ideological principles for.
A more discerning examination of Syrian foreign policy requires a paradigm shift from Realism to Constructivism. The latter approach is based on the ontological premise that reality isn’t only material but also ideational; both the social world and knowledge are socially constructed, and as such, “a state’s interests are not just out there waiting to be discovered,” but are shaped by identities which define political actors. These identities are constructed through foreign policy discourses which “shape the identity of the state, its ‘rationality’, the ‘reality’ it defines, and its interests and preferences in its interactions with the world.”
In short, interests are defined by identities and are hence, not predefined universal givens. Hafez al-Assad said as much in this excerpt from 1994 : “There has been much talk about interests in this historic stage of international development…We say that when we talk about interests we mean…not just economic interests, but…[national] sentiments and common culture and heritage.”
Syria’s Political Identity
Only by interrogating the Syrian state’s identity, can we make meaningful sense of what its foreign policy interests are and how it pursues them. As Hussein Agha and Ahmad S. Khalidi have observed in their book “Syria and Iran: Rivalry and Co-Operation”, published by Chatham House, both national identity and the definition of the “national interest” in Assad’s Syria, can best be described as “Syrio-centric Arabism”, that is, a confluence of pan-Arabism and Syrian nationalism.
In turn, this identity has been shaped by an irredentist and revisionist drive following western colonialism’s dismemberment of historic Syria, “Bilad al-Sham”, into 4 mini-states – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. The usurpation of Palestine and creation of Israel in its place, added a staunch anti-Zionism to Syria’s pan-Arab, anti-imperialist identity, an identity which was only reinforced by the loss of the Golan in the 1967 war.
Beyond preserving its physical security, the Assad leadership’s mumanaa has also become a principal source of its ontological security. That is, security of its identity as a resistant state and champion of Arab rights. According to Constructivism, ontological security is a defining feature of all foreign policy; like humans, states are social actors which have both physical needs and social drives. Thus, in addition to the need for physical security, states also strive for a security of their identity. This characteristic of states is often lost on Third Wayers who oversimplify Syria’s national security policy as a pursuit of physical [regime] security, or its mere survival as an institutional entity, to the exclusion of the security of its identity or being as a particular kind of actor.
Anti-zionism and anti-imperialist Syrio-centric Arabism were the founding principles of the Assad regime. As depicted by the scholars Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch: “Hafez al-Assad’s seizure of power in 1970 aimed to unify [the] regime and country for the struggle to recover lost Arab territories from Israel; he designed his regime to carry on this struggle.” The ensuing military and economic costs wrought by the 1973 and 1982 wars with Israel (20,000 reported military casualties and military spending that reached over 50% of Syria’s GNP by the end of the 1980s) routinized the conflict as a stable fixture of the Syrian national identity.
But that is not to say that Syrian anti-Zionism is purely reactive and the result of the perception of Israel’s threat to Syria’s security. According to Agha and Khalidi: “Assad has never severed himself from his basic ideological roots. From this perspective the struggle with Israel, although undeniably aggravated by the occupation of Syrian soil on the Golan since 1967, is not to be seen as a purely territorial issue…. this hostility also has other elements, primary among them the Syrian commitment to the Palestinian cause. From a Baathist pan-Arab perspective, the creation of Israel is not only morally unjust and a trespass against the Palestinians but a transgression against the Arab people and the greater Arab homeland.”
It is for this reason that Syria has one of the strictest anti-normalization [with Israel] policies in the region, despite its participation in the so-called “peace negotiations”. As the Israeli professor Hillel Frisch observes in his discourse analysis of over 80 issues of the Syrian military journal Jaish al-Shaab: “The basic theme is that Zionism is incorrigibly evil, whether under a right-wing Likud government or under a Labor government. Implacable hatred of the ‘Zionist enemy’ continued to prevail, and even intensify, after the Madrid peace conference in 1991”. Frisch further corroborates the main thesis of this essay when he asserts that: “even realism cannot explain the persistence of the portrayal of demonic images of the enemy (as the above quotations demonstrate) long after these talks ensued. That would require recognition of the importance of ideology, as the idealists and constructivists argue.”
Not only is the Syrian army’s military doctrine a staunchly anti-Zionist one, but its media and public diplomacy are governed by a similar legitimacy-withholding ethos. As a matter of policy, Syrian officials do not meet with their Israeli counterparts, even in the context of peace negotiations, prompting former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to complain that “Syria’s president has not done even one per cent of what President Sadat did to convince the people of Israel and in Syria that he wants peace.” Nor do they give interviews to Israeli media. A recent Times of Israel article compares the Syrian opposition’s openness to talking with Israeli media outlets with the Assad regime’s “taboo” of talking to Israeli journalists or even granting them visas to enter Syria. Moreover, Syrian censorship authorities ban all access to Israeli websites.
As decades of Syrian history have testified, the Assad regime’s identification of Arab and Palestinian rights with its national identity, also extends to its national security and foreign policy behavior. Ehteshami and Hinnebsch note that “The identification of Syrian interests with the Arab cause was no mere fiction and a purely Syrian-centred policy never took form: had it done so Asad could long ago have pursued a Sadat-like settlement with Israel over the Golan instead of mortgaging Syria’s welfare and future to a struggle chiefly in Arabist irredentism, not narrowly defined Syrian raison d’etat.”
Threats to Syria’s Physical Security
Such seemingly self-defeating behavior is typical of states pursuing ontological security. Although many of the policies chosen by them lead to outcomes which threaten their physical security, this remains secondary to the perceived stability of their self-identity. Thus, states can become “attached” to confrontational and dangerous routines as well as safe ones; ontological security is “perfectly compatible with physical insecurity”.
Therefore, despite the sustained campaign of pressure by the US on the Assad regime, the Syrian leadership has not succumbed to any of Washington’s demands – a resolve which has clearly cost the regime its physical security, as the current western-GCC-Israeli backed insurrection against Assad’s rule attests. Since 1979, Syria has been placed on the US State Department’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” on account of its support for resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon, and included in the Bush administration’s infamous “axis of evil” list in 2002, on that account as well.
Two months after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented Assad with a list of demands that included cutting off support to resistance forces in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as closing down Hamas and Islamic Jihad operations in their Damascus base – policies, Powell claimed which “no longer have the same relevance” in “a changing Middle East”. The price for Syria’s refusal to capitulate to this ultimatum was the imposition of a harsh sanctions regime, known as the Syria Accountability and Lebanon Sovereignty Act which was approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in May 2004. As reported by Eyal Zisser, “the US sanctions damaged and even blocked Syrian efforts to integrate into the world economy”. The US then spearheaded UN Security Council Resolution 1559 which called for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, and a year later, engineered the UN inquiry into the assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik al-Hariri (UNIIIC) which – based on the flimsiest of evidence – accused the Syrian regime of the assassination.
Aside from these political and diplomatic pressures, Washington has overtly harbored regime-change designs for Syria as far back as 1996 when the “Clean Break” document was drafted by former Assistant Secretary for Defence, Richard Perle for Netahyahu who was running for Prime Minister at the time. The report advises:
“Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
According to The Nation magazine, the Syria Accountability Act itself was a product of the Clean Break document. Further attesting to the US strategy of regime-change for Syria was General Wesley Clarke’s admission in a 2007 interview that he had been informed by a general in 2001 that the Pentagon was planning on “taking out 7 countries in 5 years starting with Iraq, then Syria and Lebanon. Then Libya, Somalia and Sudan. Then finishing off Iran.”
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion”, and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.