January 29, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 583

Syria Regains Pivotal Regional, Int'l Role – The Triumph of the 'Course of Resistance'

January 29, 2010 | By N. Mozes*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 583

In a December 29, 2009 speech to the Syrian parliament, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem summed up the achievements of his country's political policy in 2009 by saying, "For Syria, 2009 was a year of political success in every sense of the term, and on all fronts..."[1] Indeed, the past year has seen a significant improvement in Syria's regional and international standing; it managed to extricate itself from its isolation internationally and in the Arab world, and to position itself as an influential regional force. By the end of 2009, the Syrian regime had become self-confident and certain of the effectiveness of its "path of resistance" policy, and was challenging the regional order and the world order and acting powerfully to change both.

The following is a review of Syria's current world view and policy, as reflected in statements by Syrian officials and articles in the Syrian government press.

Syria – From Isolation to Key Player in the International Arena

Until 2008, President Bashar Al-Assad's Syria seemed to be a pariah state. Syria had been isolated by the West and by some of the Arab countries, and was under international pressure that spiked following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri; in the wake of the assassination, it was forced to withdraw its military from Lebanon.

The aggressive anti-Syria line was led by the Bush administration, which saw Syria as part of an "axis of evil" together with Iran and North Korea, and accused it of involvement in terrorism in Iraq. In 2004, the U.S. intensified its anti-Syrian sanctions, and worked in the U.N. Security Council for the passage of Resolution 1559 calling for Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. In October 2008, the U.S. even bombed insurgents on Syrian territory who were suspected of operating from there against Iraq.

The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri was a watershed in Syria's relationship with many countries in the West and in the Arab world, particularly France and Saudi Arabia, who had until then been its close allies. This change was evidently due to the close relationship that Al-Hariri had maintained with then-French president Jacques Chirac, and with the Saudi royal family. Evidence of the severing of relations and of the anger that the assassination evoked in Chirac was clear in an interview he gave in 2007 to the French daily Le Monde. He said: "There were times I used to speak with Bashar Al-Assad. I used to talk with his father [Hafez Al-Assad]. But to be honest, [Bashar and I] do not talk any more. It is he who caused [this halt to the dialogue]. I realized that there was no point [in dialogue]. It is hard to reconcile Bashar Al-Assad's regime with security and peace."[2]

In the Arab world, it was Saudi Arabia and Egypt that led the aggressive line against Syria, and there were even reports that it was they who were behind the establishment of the international tribunal to investigate the assassination.

Syria Tightens Its Alliances with Anti-Western Forces

Syria, for its part, grew closer to elements that were, and still largely are, considered to be internationally isolated – Iran and Venezuela.


Syria has maintained very close relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, even though the former country is ruled by the secular Ba'th party and the latter is a theocracy. In certain instances, Syria's relations with Iran have taken precedence over its relations with other Arab countries, as happened during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).

Since Bashar Al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed leadership, there has been increased closeness between the two countries, as expressed by the signing of a joint defense agreement in December 2009, and by the agreement to drop the visa requirement between them. The two presidents have similar views on many issues, such as resistance to what they call "the forces of hegemony," that is, the U.S. and Britain; viewing the current situation a victory for the resistance and a defeat for the "forces of hegemony"; and a vision of a new regional and world order and of their own prominent roles in them.

Evidence of this can be found in the words of Bashar Al-Assad on the eve of his January 13, 2010 visit to Saudi Arabia, when he called Syria-Iran relations "strategic and ideological" and said that Syria and Iran saw eye to eye on all issues.[3] The two leaders even use the same terminology, as reflected in their statements during Ahmadinejad's May 2009 visit to Damascus. In addition, Syria advocates for Iran among the Arab countries, with the aim of reducing Arab fears regarding the Iranian regime and bringing them to see it as their ally.[4]


Syria-Venezuela relations became closer after Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998. As part of his anti-American policy, Chavez tightened relations with countries such as Syria and Iran. In 2006, at the height of Syria's isolation, Chavez paid an historic visit to Syria, during which both he and Bashar Al-Assad stressed their resistance to American imperialism.[5]

Nasser Qandil, a former Lebanese MP who is close to the Syrian regime, explained in his column in the Syrian government daily Teshreen the essence of the alliance between Assad, Ahmadinejad, and Chavez. He said it was like "a declaration of a new world [alliance] awaited and needed by all humanity, [one] that declares that the peoples are again managing their own affairs and that resistance is not just a romantic slogan but also a living fact..."[6]

The Armed Resistance in Lebanon and Palestine

In the recent years, Syria stepped up its support of Hamas and Hizbullah, as representatives of the resistance in Palestine and in Lebanon respectively. It also continued its mostly covert support of the insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.[7]

France, U.S. Turn Towards Syria

This strategy won Syria much support in the Arab street, but brought it into an almost unprecedented conflict – to the brink of a cold war[8] – with many Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as with the U.S. Even though this policy led to its isolation by some Arab regimes and by the West, and seemed to place the Syrian regime in danger of collapse, it has as of late 2009 proven to be wise. In contrast to the Bush administration and to Chirac's government, which saw Syria as an obstacle and as posing a risk to their attainment of their goals in the Middle East, the governments of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and of U.S. President Barack Obama, and, following them, also the Saudi regime, see Syria as a means for achieving broader goals, and they are attempting to get it on their side. With Syria stubbornly clinging to its positions, these governments are moving away from the policies of their predecessors and are abandoning the approach of clashing with Syria and isolating it. Instead, they have begun treating it as a key regional country capable of mediating between the West and Iran and of influencing the level of violence in the Palestinian territories, in Lebanon, and in Iraq.

The major change started with Sarkozy's presidency. Sarkozy abandoned his predecessor's policy and sought to embrace Syria and to bring it back into the French fold, apparently with the view that it was through the door of Syria that France would be able to expand its influence in the Middle East. One expression of this was Sarkozy's statements to the Syrian daily Al-Watan during his first visit to the country in September 2008: "...Since my election, I have wanted France to regain its place on the international chessboard, and I am interested in my country bearing the responsibility for peace in the Middle East. In order to do this, it is necessary to gain the trust of all sides, and therefore I have made several changes in France's policy in the region..."[9]

France also led the change in EU policy towards Syria, as expressed in an interview that then-president of the European parliament Hans Gert Pöttering gave to Al-Watan in August 2008. He said that during the past three years, the EU had adopted a policy of passivity towards Syria, and that now the winds of change were blowing. He noted that the EU no longer thought that the way to solving the problems was isolation, but rather dialogue among partners.[10]

It should be noted that as of now, it appears that France's efforts have yet to bear fruit, and that Syria is assigning France only a secondary role as mediator in the peace process, and is insisting that Turkey and the U.S. be the main mediators in its negotiations with Israel. Nevertheless, Syria is reaping economic dividends from the rapprochement with France, including France's readiness to break the U.S. embargo so that it can sell Airbuses to Syria.

As for the change in U.S. policy, it began at the end of the Bush administration. Evidence of this can be seen in an interview that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave to the London daily Al-Hayat in August 2008, in which she denied that the U.S. was implementing a policy of isolating Syria. She said: "...There is a continuous relationship with Syria... and we have diplomatic relations with Syria... I have met with [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid Al-Mu'allem when we were in Sharm Al-Sheikh. Our relations with Syria are correct."[11]

This trend grew stronger when U.S. President Barack Obama took office, and it became part of a comprehensive policy vis-à-vis the region that Obama laid out in his Cairo speech on June 4, 2009. His approach might have emanated from his perception that Syria was essential to stabilizing the situation in Iraq when U.S. forces withdrew.[12]

The American openness was expressed by the start of a dialogue with Syria; by the appointment of an American ambassador to Damascus, after the Bush administration recalled the Ambassador in 2005 in protest over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri; by visits by senior American politicians, such as Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry; and by visits by U.S. military delegations. At the same time, it should be noted that the Obama administration set conditions for improving America's relations with Syria,[13] and even renewed the sanctions on Syria; moreover, as of this writing, the U.S. ambassador to Syria has not returned to Damascus.

The U.S.'s policy of openness towards Syria contributed greatly to the improvement of Syria's status in the region and internationally – from an untouchable and isolated country to a country courted by several of its main rivals though it is apparently giving nothing in return.

Saudi Reactions to the West's Change of Policy

This new approach on the part of the West was perceived at first by some of the Arab media as rewarding extremist elements and abandoning moderate allies. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director-general of the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV and former editor-in-chief of the London Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, called Syria's policy "genius" for successfully misleading the West: "...Damascus has created crises [and then] proposed solutions... Syria's partner Hizbullah occupied western Beirut so that Damascus would intervene and stop it; Syria's friends in the Lebanese opposition refused to elect Michel Suleiman [as president] even though he was the agreed-upon candidate, so that Damascus would intervene, [and then] it would be agreed [that Suleiman would be president]... Syria's friend Hamas ratcheted up the level of violence against Israel so that [Damascus would intervene] and order it to stop. [Damascus] finished up by again ordering its allies in the Lebanese opposition to stop thwarting the formation of the Lebanese government, and thus, just two days before [Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad] left for Paris... Syria convinced [the world] that it had changed, when [in fact] it had changed nothing..."[14]

Saudi Arabia, a backbone of the "moderate Arab axis" which has vehemently opposed Syria's policy in recent years, and which was at first displeased with the French openness towards Syria, has adapted to the shift in the international climate vis-à-vis Syria, and changed its position accordingly. The first sign of this change was Saudi King 'Abdallah's reconciliation with Syria at the Kuwait summit in January 2009. During the Doha Summit, in late March 2009, it appeared that Saudi Arabia was withdrawing nearly completely from its positions towards Syria and the Syria-Iran axis, or at least accepting with silence the fact that the Syrian discourse was taking over the summit.[15] The height of the change came with the monarch's historic visit to Syria on October 7 and 8, 2009, and with the understandings regarding Lebanon, which in effect legitimized Syria's return to Lebanon.[16]

Several days after King 'Abdallah's visit, the editor of the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, Turki Al-Sudairi wrote an op-ed stating that the solution to Lebanon's chronic instability was for Syria to again control Lebanon. "Why shouldn't Lebanon return to Syria?", he asked.[17] Other official Saudi newspapers hastened to reassure that the article was not representative of the official Saudi position and to reiterate that the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement was not at Lebanon's expense.[18] However, today it appears that Al-Sudairi's op-ed heralded what was to come.

Currently, Egypt is the only country in the moderate Arab axis that has not backed down from its position vis-à-vis Syria, and is consequently subject to repeated attacks by the Syrian media.[19] Likewise, Syria-Iraq relations are very tense, although it seemed that they were improving, as reflected by the two countries' August 18, 2009 decision to establish a joint strategic council, during Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's visit to Damascus. The day after this decision was reached, a series of grisly bombings aimed at government ministries rocked Baghdad. Following the bombings, Al-Maliki claimed that the perpetrators had links to Iraqi Ba'th members backed by Syrian government figures. Syria denied the accusation, and in response to Syria's denials, Al-Maliki called for an international tribunal or investigative committee to be established, to determine who was behind the bombings; he sent a letter on the matter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the matter. Both Turkey and Iran attempted to mediate between Syria and Iraq, but to no avail.

It should be noted that none of the Arab countries stood with Iraq, and the U.S. response was both cool and slow in coming. The lukewarm international response to Al-Maliki's call may be another reflection of the shift in attitude towards Syria.

Syria: The Era of the West Is Over; Anti-West Forces Have Triumphed

Syria, for its part, sees the shift in the Western and Arab attitude towards it as a sign that its opponents are weak, and as vindication of its course over the years. Syria also draws confidence from the situation in the region; it sees the U.S. as sinking into a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perceives the resistance forces – Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006, and Hamas in Gaza in 2009 – as having triumphed over Israel and the forces behind it (that is, the U.S.). This has led it to conclude that now is no time to soften its positions and to abandon the principles which, it believes, produced the shift in attitude towards it – that is, its support of the resistance forces and its alliance with Iran. Thus, the West's new openness is actually encouraging Syria to cling to its positions, and even to toughen its stance.

Syria is not shy about discussing this approach publicly and in the presence of Western leaders. Thus, when Assad was asked at a joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann whether the shift in attitude towards Syria was due to a change in Syria's positions, he replied: "What has changed is the [Western] perception of Syria's position... Syria is an important country and no one can prevent it from playing such a role. The difference [from the past] is that there are countries that think that cooperating with Syria will make us change our policy in certain directions. After a while, they discovered that the problems of the [Middle] East cannot be resolved without Syria's cooperation..."[20]

Syria's sense of triumph over the new situation was also evident in Assad's statements during his visit to Iran following the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "...The general circumstances in the region serve the front of resistance and steadfastness. The countries of the West, particularly the U.S., are facing many problems, both domestic and in the [Middle East]. So far, they have achieved nothing in the region, not even in Lebanon..." According to Assad, the Western response to Ahmadinejad's reelection was due to "concern that the serial victories of Iran and Syria will continue for another four years."

During the same visit, the two leaders agreed that "the global situation is an historic opportunity for the peoples of the region," and stressed the need to make the most of it. Also during the visit, Assad predicted that "from now on, the doors of the international community will be open for Iran and Syria more than they have been in the past."[21]

At the Conference of Arab Parties, held November 2009 in Damascus, President Bashar Al-Assad stated: "We have studied history well, prepared the present and determined the future... In the last three years, we have defined our goals with precision: the adversary is the U.S., and the enemy is Israel. In the past, the American administration itself was the enemy, [but] now this equation has changed... We have reached a stage where we believe their proposals are to our benefit... We have succeeded, and [today] we are ruled by a sense of challenge, not of fear..."[22]

Former Lebanese MP Nasser Qandil, who is close to the Syrian regime, summarized the situation in his weekly column in the Syrian daily Teshreen, using less diplomatic terms: "In the [present] world war, aimed at breaking the strategic Syrian-Iranian alliance, it is the spear of the strategic American-Israeli alliance that has broken. [Now] a new era has begun that will completely reorganize our region, as reflected in the new American [policy] of turning to dialogue with Syria and Iran... The Syrian and Iranian leadership have a profound understanding of the new starting point, which promises a transition from [a situation on which these countries] are leading the resistance to [a situation in which they are] leading a new regional order..."[23]

Syrian columnist Salim 'Aboud wrote in the daily Al-Thawra: "...Damascus has become a meeting point for leaders and statesmen from all over the world. It has proven that its policy, which is based upon rights and upon a refusal to relinquish [these rights], is the one that can set events [in motion] and place it in an honorable position. This is the policy which has turned [Syria], and continues to turn it, into a pivotal country whose decisions and desires cannot be overlooked."[24]

'Imad Fawzi Shu'eibi, head of the Data and Strategic Studies Center in Damascus, wrote an article in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat in which he outlined Syria's foreign policy and its perception of its role in the region: "...Syria has regained its regional position, and has consolidated [this position] by means of [Hizbullah's] 2006 victory [over Israel] and through a policy of biding its time. Syria has plenty of patience... and this enables it to be a country that assigns roles [to others] and withholds them [from others]. It can say 'yes' and 'no' in its own way. Its 'no' is one that does not [completely] shut the door on regional and international relations, and its 'yes' [is one that] does not open the door to its enemies. This is a policy of half-open doors..."[25]

Syria is Pursuing a New Regional and International World Order

Based on this sense of self-worth, Syria is now working, along with its allies Iran and Venezuela, to create a new world order involving several blocs of countries, each with equal weight, as an alternative to what it sees as a unipolar order with America as the sole superpower. At the April 2, 2009 Doha Summit, President Al-Assad said: "...The world is currently in a state of crisis which may, despite the difficulty it entails, present us with an opportunity to seek, along with others, a foundation for a new world order... The comprehensive change taking place today is reminiscent of the global reshuffle [of power] that occurred in the middle of the previous century..."[26]

After an April 2009 meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, in a similar vein, "Iran and Syria must assist one another in creating a new world order...," to which Al-Mu'allem replied, "Syria calls for developing the relations [between the two countries] and for comprehensive cooperation with Iran in all domains."[27] A few days later, Ahmadinejad said, "Iran is willing to play a significant role in running the world..."[28] At a press conference with Assad at the end of his May 2009 visit to Damascus, the Iranian president said: "Alongside the resistance and steadfastness, we must also strive to create a new world order; otherwise new oppressive regimes will emerge..."[29] He added, "The philosophy and order that emerged after World War II have come to the end of their road, and [the West] is unable to offer solutions for the world's problems, since its thinking is based on discrimination and on [undermining] security."[30]

As part of these efforts to establish a new world order, Syria is operating on several levels:

1. The Effort to Implement the "Four Seas Strategy":

This strategy is based on an alliance between Syria, Iran and Turkey, which, these countries hope, will also be joined by Iraq and by the Caucasus countries, so as to form a geographic continuum between four seas: the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. As part of the efforts to expand this alliance, and perhaps also as a sign of Syria's mounting confidence, Syria offered to mediate in the crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Armenia and Turkey.[31]

Explaining the rationale behind this alliance, Assad said: "Syria and Turkey are strategically important countries. They have a significant political role, and they enjoy stability on the security and social [levels]... [Our region] is an important junction for transport, [including the] transport of energy... In addition, there is cooperation between Turkey and Iraq, and beginnings of relations between Turkey and Iran. Good relations are forming between Syria and Iraq, while Iran and Syria [already] have good relations... We are important not [only] in the Middle East. We are at the center of the world, and are bound to become a crucial link for the whole world in terms of investments, transport and the like..."[32]

During his visit to Iran, Assad presented the idea of the "four seas strategy" to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and received his blessing.[33]

It should be noted that Assad's statements regarding the good Syria-Iraq relations predated the outbreak of the crisis between Syria and Iraq following the series of Baghdad bombings in August 2009. However, despite the present tension between the two countries, Syrian, Iranian and Turkish officials continue to regard Iraq as part of the alliance. During his visit to Syria for the first meeting of the Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "The Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council is not just between Turkey and Syria. [Similar councils exist for cooperation] between Syria and Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, and Turkey and Lebanon. When this activity increases, I think this region will become a region of peace..."[34]

A similar hope was expressed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem in a speech to the parliament in which he reviewed Syria's diplomatic achievements in 2009: "...These strategic ties [between Syria and Turkey] are to be a nucleus that will soon be augmented by Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq..."[35]

The creation of the Syria-Iran-Turkey-Iraq alliance is perceived as an expression of Syria's defiance vis-à-vis the current world order, as columnist Muhammad Zarouf wrote in the government daily Al-Ba'th: "...The region needs a strategic force that will put an end to the collapse and the disintegration that is spreading everywhere [in the region]. These allow the international forces to interfere in everything and to subjugate the region to their political will – which is not necessarily compatible with the interests and will of the region's countries and peoples... The aim is to establish a new regional force that will be able to take part in restoring balance to the world order, which suffers from unilateralism and from imbalance, due to the 'unipolar' control [i.e. by the U.S.] over the running of its affairs..."[36]


Syria's rapport with Turkey is a fairly recent development compared to its good relations with Iran. In the past, Syria-Turkey relations were rocky due to Syria's support of the PKK, Turkey's relations with Israel, and conflicts over the distribution of the waters of the Euphrates river and over the Alexandretta region. Tensions mounted to the point that, in 1998, Turkey deployed forces along its border with Syria, with the aim of forcing the latter to expel PKK leader 'Abdallah Ocalan, who had received political asylum and assistance from Damascus.

In 2003, Syria-Turkish relations began to thaw, as evidenced by Assad's historic visit to Turkey in 2004, which was the first visit to this country by a Syrian president since the end of World War I.

Assad attributed the strategic change in Syria's policy towards Turkey to the U.S. troops' 2003 invasion of Iraq. He said: "Following the war on Iraq in 2003, we saw that the fire was coming closer to us. Thus, we tightened relations [with Turkey] in order to protect ourselves..."[37]

Recent far-reaching developments in Syria-Turkey relations have led to the establishment of the Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, the mutual abolition of visas, joint military maneuvers, and the signing of cooperation agreements in a number of areas, including the military one.

Close relations are in the interests of both countries. Turkey, controlled by Erdogan's Justice and Development (AKP) party, seeks to become closer to the Arab and Islamic world, and to develop into a prominent regional power. Evidence that Turkey sees itself as a regional power comes from statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who said that Turkey is no longer a country that follows others, but has now become a leading country, and that the other Middle East countries respect it for the role that it plays.[38] Turkey's self-perception as a regional leader is also reflected in its readiness to volunteer to mediate in inter-Arab crises – between Syria and Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and Fatah and Hamas – as well as in international conflicts such as Iran's nuclear crisis and the Syria-Israel negotiations.

Likewise, since the AKP, headed by Erdogan, came to power, Turkey has in some instances adopted a policy incompatible with the interests of its former allies, the U.S., and the EU; these include its refusal to permit its territory to be used for launching the attack on Iraq in 2003, and its recognition of the Hamas government in Gaza. It should be noted that within Turkey itself there are critics of this policy, which is perceived as "neo-Ottoman."[39] Erdogan himself has denied pursuing this policy.[40]

For Syria, allying with Turkey gives it numerous advantages: It helps diffuse Syria's sense of being under siege because of Turkey's alliance with Israel and the presence of U.S. troops in Turkey and Iraq. Syria, for its part, has stopped supporting the Kurds, and, according to various reports, has dropped its demand for the Alexandretta region, which has been a focus of dispute between the two countries for the past five decades. Also, Syria insists that Turkey will mediate in its negotiations with Israel, thus contributing to Turkey's international status.

The Arab Countries

Syria seeks to reassure the Arab countries regarding its intentions, emphasizing that its relations with Turkey and Iran do not come at the expense of its relations with the Arab world, and that no harm to Arab interests will result – on the contrary, these relations will actually strengthen them. However, while senior Syrian officials stress the Arab countries' special status, Syria does not seem to be assigning them a leading role in the regional bloc that it is working to consolidate. Apparently, the Arab countries are meant to join the regional alliance, when it materializes, but will not be part of its founding nucleus.

At the annual Ba'th party conference, in December 2009, Syrian presidential aide 'Imad Hassan Turkmani clarified the Syrian perception, saying: "Syria is acting to establish a regional bloc, to include Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, and to connect the continents... Syria wants a regional alliance that will first of all serve all the Arabs and will support the matters that concern them. [This alliance] will complete the Arab alliance on which Syria relies as a main support... In policy, there is no room for dreams; there are [only] interests that [Syria sees] as the basis [of its policy]..."[41]

Syria's striving to consolidate a regional alliance along these lines may reflect its understanding, based on the experience of recent years, that it cannot trust the Arab countries to support it in time of need, and that it must pull together an axis that currently bypasses the Arab countries, and will later be joined by them after they realize its strength and the advantages it offers. This policy has already borne fruit: One example of this is Saudi Arabia, which did a complete about-face in its position towards Syria once it saw Syria's steadfastness in the face of regional and international pressures.

At the same time, Syria is trying to label itself as a leader of the campaign for reconciliation in the Arab world, and it apparently seeks to lead this world, as evidenced by statements made to Syrian state television by presidential political and information advisor Buthayna Sha'ban: "Syria is a central player in the region, and no one can ignore that. It aspires to be the central player in obtaining the Arab rights, not only in the Golan Heights, but also in Palestine..."[42]

Syria's Rejection of the Partnership Agreement with the EU

As part of its aspiration to create a new world order, in which it would have a position of influence as a member of the regional alliance, Syria seeks to free itself from the European bear hug, which is led by France. This was expressed in the shift in Syria's attitude towards the Syria-EU partnership agreement.

For years, Syria worked towards signing a partnership agreement with the EU, its main trade partner. A draft of the agreement was drawn up, but was not signed due to European reservations regarding Syria's domestic and foreign policy; the issue fell off the map. Only in 2008, and as part of Europe's change in policy towards Syria, was it raised again, and an agreement was initialed. The agreement was approved by the EU in October 2009.

The agreement's approval was received coolly in Syria. Assad said that it needed to be re-examined in accordance with Syria's national interest, and that the partnership must be between two parties of equal status and economic soundness, and must not include either side's intervention in the other's domestic affairs.[43]

Syrian officials stressed their fear of the agreement's impact on production and on the domestic economy, although when it was initialed in 2008, senior Syrian economists emphasized that it would benefit Syria's economy, and noted that fears of its impact were unwarranted.[44] However, Assad's statement quoted above seems to confirm the reports that Syria's opposition to the agreement was due mainly to the conditions it included regarding human rights in Syria, and regarding Syrian foreign policy.[45] Furthermore, it seems that Syria is apprehensive about signing an agreement with a powerful political bloc like the EU, and prefers to focus on bilateral ties with each individual EU country, as expressed in late December 2009 by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem.[46]

It seems that another motivation for Syria's coolness towards the EU in the present circumstances is this country's confidence in the realization of the "four seas strategy" described above, aimed primarily at creating an economic-political bloc equivalent in its weight and influence to the EU itself. This is evident from Assad's statements at a joint press conference with Finnish President Tarja Halonen, in which he clarified that "Syria's top priority is tightening its relations with the countries in [its own] region, especially with the Arab countries and with its neighbors, such as Turkey... We must start with the countries of the region. This does not mean that we reject other countries... [but] we cannot talk of good relations with Europe and America when we have problems with the neighboring countries. That's natural. [Good relations with the neighbors] are not a substitute [for good relations with countries outside the region], but they do take priority over them..."[47]

Statements by Syrian officials and articles in the Syrian press took a more belligerent tack. For example, Syrian Prime Minister Naji Al-'Otri stressed that his country was interested in a partnership of equals with Europe, and that it had gained a position of power that allowed it to negotiate these matters in a different way than in the past.[48]

Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem said at a press conference with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero that the EU's approval of the agreement had taken Syria by surprise, and that Syria now had to reexamine the agreement, a process that could take until the end of Spain's presidency of the EU in June 2010.[49]

Two days after the EU's approval of the agreement, and ahead of Assad's visit to Croatia, the editor of the government daily Al-Thawra, As'ad 'Aboud, downplayed the importance of Europe's five leading countries, namely France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain. He said that Europe also includes other countries, each of which can be a gateway for Syria into the EU, and that Syria is extending its hand to all the European countries. He added: "We want excellent relations with any European country [willing to treat us] as a partner. We approach our partnership with the EU from this broad basis of bilateral relations that are effective and influential..."[50]

The daily Al-Watan, which is close to the Syrian regime, went so far as to argue that Syria does not need the EU to develop its economy, and wondered whether Syria should sign the agreement at all in the present circumstances.[51]

2. Challenging the Legitimacy of the International Institutions

As part of its bid for a new world order, Syria is challenging the legitimacy of the international institutions, especially the U.N. and its Security Council, which it regards, in their present form, as tools of the American hegemony and hence as requiring structural reform.[52] In this approach, Syria is aligned with Iran, Libya, Venezuela and Hizbullah, all of which challenge the existing world order and are working to change it.

President Assad himself challenged the legitimacy of the U.N. institutions at a joint press conference with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: "...I did not speak [with Chavez] about the 'international community,' because today this term refers to a very small group of powers that are striving to control the world, the international policy and the global economy. [Instead,] we spoke of an international movement consisting of countries that can take a just approach to these issues.

"When we speak of the 'international community' in the prevailing sense of the word, we speak of the hegemony of [certain] international organizations. Syria and Venezuela call to reform these organizations, so as to pass from a phase of global anarchy to a phase of global order. We say that [today], what we have is not order but anarchy. We all want global order, but [we want it to be] an order in which all countries take part... We all know that the international organizations [represent] only some countries, [and the same goes for] the world order and the international community...

The international organizations, the U.N. institutions, and all the bodies subordinate to them are controlled by a small group of countries, and their resolutions are subordinate and connected to the interests of these countries. [So] obviously, [these resolutions] cannot be in our favor as well..."[53]

Similar claims were made in the Syrian government press. Faisal Sa'd, a lecturer at Tishreen University, wrote: "...The U.N. actually became obsolete in 1991, when the cold war was officially declared at an end... Today, some two decades after [this organization] became obsolete, and nothing was left of it except its name, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a crucial need to reform [the U.N.] or to reestablish it in light of the new circumstances, which form a solid foundation for a new, alternative world order. To this end, there is a need to change or amend the rationale and the operating mechanisms of many [U.N. institutions], especially the Security Council... The 'surgical' procedure required [to correct] the workings of [this body] will not be complete until its functions and authorities are transferred to the U.N. General Assembly, [which will then serve as] a true international parliament with the full authority to formulate and pass binding international resolutions, without anybody having a power of veto...

"A reform of the U.N. and its institutions cannot be carried out under [the hegemony] of the capitalist globalization, which was based and is [still] based upon principles of tyranny and dictatorship, and which operates through exploitation, coercion, oppression and deception. From a logical and objective point of view, the reform must be carried out through a different globalization [process] – a grassroots one – that will impose a new world order with [its own] international institutions, anchored in principles of pluralistic justice and democracy..."[54]

Syria: The Change in the West's Attitude Towards Us Was a Result of Our Support of the Resistance

Syria has placed itself firmly at the head of the "resistance camp," whose other main members are Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah, as well as Qatar and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Syrian spokesmen, headed by President Assad himself, have declared that resistance is the ultimate way to confront the West and Israel. At the Conference of Arab Parties, Assad made clear the importance he ascribes to the resistance: "...We have now begun to build a new Middle East, whose essence is resistance. Resistance in the cultural and military sense, and in every other sense, was and is the essence of our policy, and it will continue to be so in the future. It is the essence of our [very] existence..."[55]

Syrian spokesmen clarify that "resistance" is not just military action, but also means uncompromising insistence on principles in the face of what they see as Western attempts to impose dictates that contravene the Arab or Muslim interests. This is one of the motivations behind the strategic alliance with Turkey and Iran, as explained by 'Imad Fawzi Shu'eibi, head of the Data and Strategic Studies Center in Damascus: "...Resistance is not just military. It also means building a geostrategic future for this region that is different from [the future that others] wish [to create] for it. This is the basis of President Assad's perception of the 'four seas [alliance]' and of the strategic relations with Turkey as a form of strategic resistance..."[56]

Syria presents its insistence on its principles and its firm support of the resistance as the main reasons for the improvement in its status and for the change in the West's policy towards it. Assad's political and media advisor Buthayna Sha'ban said, "The wisdom of President Assad, and his perception, which is based on resistance, steadfastness and dynamic policy... have strengthened Syria's pivotal role in the region and enabled us to stand firm and steady in the face of all the pressures and challenges of the last few years."[57]

Nabil Fawzat Nawfal wrote in a similar vein in his column in the government daily Al-Thawra: "...If there has been any change in the course of the American administration, it is [only] thanks to the resistance forces and their victory, which was supported by the forces of resistance and steadfastness in Syria and Iran. Syria, the [emblem] of Arabism, and the heroic resistance forces have come to be the shapers of events [in the region] and the main players. If in the past the equation was that there could be no peace without Syria, today the equation is that there is no peace without Syria and also no war without Syria. Nobody can impose [upon us] a peace [agreement] that contravenes the inclinations of our Arab people, nor can anybody impose [upon us] a war that we do not want. This is proof that the path of resistance, which President Assad has chosen and which he has steered with wisdom and competence, is the right path. [Assad] has brought Syria [to a position of] strategic superiority, where it holds the reigns of political and military initiative in the region..."[58]

Columnist Salim 'Aboud made far-reaching claims regarding the success of Syria's policy: "...Syria's policy has managed to shape the [power-]balance of the Middle East conflict, and to disrupt [the plans] of the American occupier in Iraq, bringing about his defeat. It shattered the dreams of the [Bush] administration, and was one of the reasons for Republicans' defeat in the U.S. elections. It caused the whole world to reject the policy of the Bush administration and to welcome the arrival of a new administration, in hope that the world would [now] know some calm after the storms generated by Bush's insane Zionist policy..."[59]

Resistance and the Peace Process

Syria sees no contradiction between adhering to the course of resistance and striving for peace. According to its spokesmen, resistance and negotiations are both means to "restore the usurped rights," and both can be employed, either simultaneously or separately, according to the circumstances. On the eve of his November 13, 2009 visit to France, Assad said: "...The essence of peace is not just negotiations but also resistance. It is a mistake to think that peace will be achieved [only] through negotiations, [for] it will also be achieved through resistance. That is why we must support the resistance, because thereby we support the peace process. Resistance and negotiations are [two parts of] a single [course], whose aim is to restore our legitimate rights, which we will never relinquish."[60]

Resistance is presented as Syria's strategic option, which has proved its effectiveness in Lebanon and Gaza – as opposed to the option of negotiations, which has failed because of Israel's policy. Al-Thawra editor As'ad 'Aboud explained: "...All the documents that have been signed, from the Camp David [Accords] to the Oslo [Accords], created [only] the illusion of peace. We are living [a reality of] war, not peace... We want peace, but [we refuse to enter] the corridors of futile negotiation that we already know will lead nowhere... If [Israel] does not intend to reach a peace [agreement] and rejects the demands [for peace], what is the way to security and stability? We [Syrians] have the answer to this question: resistance. A Middle East [that embraces] resistance is a Middle East that puts an end to occupation and strengthens security and stability."[61]

* N. Mozes is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.



[1] SANA (Syria), December 29, 2009.

[2] Le Monde (France), July 26, 2006.

[3] IRNA (Iran), January 12, 2010.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 517, "Ahmadinejad and Assad: Iran and Syria Are Leading a New World Order; The Time of America and the West Is Over, May 26, 2009, Ahmadinejad and Assad: Iran and Syria Are Leading a New World Order; The Time of America and the West Is Over.

[5] Al-Thawra (Syria), August 30, 2009.

[6] Teshreen (Syria), September 6, 2009.

[7] Syria is permitting the Iraqi TV channel Al-Rai, which supports and encourages armed action against the U.S. forces in Iraq, to broadcast from its territory.

[8] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 492, "An Escalating Regional Cold War - Part I: The 2009 Gaza War," by: Y. Carmon, Y. Yehoshua, A. Savyon, and H. Miron, February 2, 2009, An Escalating Regional Cold War – Part I: The 2009 Gaza War.

[9] Al-Watan (Syria), September 3, 2008.

[10] Al-Watan (Syria), August 10, 2008.

[11] Al-Hayat (London), August 26, 2008.

[12] It should be noted that the 2006 Baker-Hamilton report stated that Iraq's neighbors had a significant influence on its stability and prosperity, and called on the U.S. administration to act diplomatically in order to create an international consensus for the stability of Iraq and of the region. The report assumed that Syria, like Iran, had an interest in preventing chaos in Iraq.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), Al-Watan (Syria), February 19, 2009.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 13, 2008.

[15] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 510, "The Doha Summit – A Defeat for the Saudi-Egyptian Camp," April 8, 2009, The Doha Summit – A Defeat for the Saudi-Egyptian Camp.

[16] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 565, "The March 14 Forces after the Formation of the New Lebanese Government: From Electoral Victory to Political Defeat and Disintegration Within Five Months," November 22, 2009, The March 14 Forces after the Formation of the New Lebanese Government: From Electoral Victory to Political Defeat and Disintegration Within Five Months.

[17] See MEMRI Special Dispatch 2595, "Al-Riyadh Editor: 'Why Shouldn't Lebanon Return to Syria?,'" October 14, 2009, 'Al-Riyadh' Editor: 'Why Shouldn't Lebanon Return to Syria?'.

[18] See Special Dispatch No. 2598, "Al-Riyadh' Editor Retracts Call to Return Lebanon to Syria," October 15, 2009, 'Al-Riyadh' Editor Retracts Call to Return Lebanon to Syria.

[19] In the course of January 2010, the Syrian daily Al-Watan published a number of anti-Egyptian articles, which claimed that Egypt had adopted the American policy and was party to Israel's siege on Gaza, and that it was the only Arab country undermining the atmosphere of reconciliation in the Arab world. Egypt was also accused of sabotaging the inter-Palestinian reconciliation out of pride. Al-Watan (Syria), January 12, 18, 21, 2010.

[20] Al-Thawra (Syria), December 24, 2009.

[21] Al-Hayat (London), August 20, 2009.

[22] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 15, 2009.

[23] Teshreen (Syria), May 10, 2009.

[24] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 30, 2009.

[25] Al-Hayat (London), December 3, 2009.

[26] SANA (Syria), April 2, 2009.

[27] SANA (Syria), April 9, 2009.

[28] Khorasan (Iran), April 19, 2009. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 521, "Ahmadinejad: Iran Is a Nuclear Power Ready to Participate in Running the World", June 8, 2009, Ahmadinejad: Iran Is a Nuclear Power Ready to Participate in Running the World.

[29] ISNA (Iran), May 6, 2009.

[30] Fars (Iran), May 5, 2009. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 517, "Ahmadinejad and Assad: Iran and Syria Are Leading a New World Order; The Time of America and the West Is Over," June 8, 2009, Ahmadinejad and Assad: Iran and Syria Are Leading a New World Order; The Time of America and the West Is Over.

[31] Teshreen (Syria), June 18, 2009.

[32] Al-Thawra (Syria), May 17, 2009.

[33] IRNA (Iran), August 19, 2009.

[34] Al-Thawra (Syria), December 24, 2009.

[35], December 29, 2009.

[36] Al-Ba'th (Syria), October 28, 2009.

[37] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 4, 2010.

[38] Yeni Safak (Turkey), May 25, 2009.

[39] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1114, "Hamas Visit to Turkey Deepens Secular-Islamist Rift," March 14, 2006, Hamas Visit to Turkey Deepens Secular-Islamist Rift.

[40] Habervaktim (Turkey), December 8, 2009.

[41] Al-Ba'th (Syria), December 31, 2009.

[42] Teshreen (Syria), December 8, 2009.

[43] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 2, 2009.

[44] Al-Thawra (Syria), August 26, 2008; Teshreen (Syria), December 16, 2008.

[45] Al-Hayat (London), October 11, 2009.

[46], December 29, 2009.

[47] Al-Thawra (Syria), October 23, 2009.

[48] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 9, 2009.

[49] Al-Watan (Syria), October 15, 2009.

[50] Al-Thawra (Syria), October 28, 2009.

[51] Al-Watan (Syria), November 3, 2009.

[52] Apparently, Syria's challenge of the U.N. is also aimed at delegitimizing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

[53] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 4, 2009.

[54] Al-Watan (Syria), September 17, 2009.

[55] SANA (Syria), November 12, 2009.

[56] Al-Hayat (London), December 3, 2009.

[57] Al-Hayat (London), August 18, 2009.

[58] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 13, 2009.

[59] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 30, 2009.

[60] SANA (Syria), November 12, 2009.

[61] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 23, 2009.

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.