Syria in the Third Year of Crisis

Monday, April 8, 2013

Seyed Hussein Mousavi

This article aims to use three propositions to offer an evaluation of the current position of all the parties involved in the ongoing Syria crisis as that crisis enters its third year.

First – It is quite clear that the overall political structure of the Syrian government revolves around the concentration of powers and qualifications in the president. However, the incumbent Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad addressed the Syria People Council in the second half of the 1990s in which he pointed to global developments and the need to implement reforms, especially in economic fields. Those reforms brought Syria’s economic situation closer to the market economy and caused the country to practically distance from the axial and ideological mottos of the Baath Party. As a result, the private sector in Syria experienced unparalleled growth during the first tenure of Bashar Al-Assad in office as president, the direct outcome of which was remarkable rise in the country’s per capita income.

According to a report by the International Monetary Fund, Syria recorded an economic growth of about 6.7 percent at the end of the 1990s which was quite remarkable in comparison with the economic growth rate of other countries in the Middle East which lack rich oil resources. Fighting discrimination, economic corruption and rent seeking in Syria went so far that even the old guards of the Baath Party and the network of rent seeking officials close to the political power base were disappointed. It was in the same period that some prominent figures of the Baath Party, who had powerful control over strategic networks of the Syrian economy, left the country as a result of Bashar Al-Assad’s economic reform policy and joined the foreign-based opposition. The West welcomed Assad’s economic reform policy in the country, but expected the Syria to do the same in the area of foreign policy as well.

The government of Syria flatly gave a negative answer to the United States’ frequent requests for the start of peace talks with Israel, lowering Damascus relations with a collection of anti-Israel resistance groups from the Lebanese Hezbollah to Palestinian resistance movements, and also Washington’s request from Syria to join the club of moderate Arab states in the region. The only important development in Syria’s new foreign policy toward Israel was the implementation of Assad government’s latest strategic change in its confrontation with Israel. As a result, instead of the strategy which called for the establishment of strategic power balance with Israel, Damascus opted for another strategy: the strategy of pursuing sustainable, fair and all-out peace on the basis of major resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council with regard to the conflict between Arabs and Israel. Since that time, that is, following the failure of peace talks in Madrid and Oslo, Bashar Al-Assad has been shifting the focus of his anti-Israel struggles from establishing strategic power balance to establishment of conditional peace, and then to increasing his country’s deterrence, and resistance against the moderate Arab states. These changes were a result of Assad’s profound understanding of Israel’s approaches which were based on not accepting comprehensive peace with Palestinians, retreating from the occupied Palestinian lands, and recognizing the legitimate and legal demands of the Palestinian nation.

A major outcome of this strategy change was transpiration of Israel’s unwillingness for the establishment of sustainable and comprehensive peace in the region. Although Tel Aviv was not able to totally shun direct negotiations with Syria, it made restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria conditional on a long, complicated and purposeless process. As a result, the leaders of Syria came to correctly realize that Israel is not very willing to have another experience even similar to the Camp David Accord by giving some parts of the occupied Palestinian lands back to their rightful owners. On the contrary, Tel Aviv continued to pursue peace with individual Arab states and Palestinian groups in order to show to the world that Syria is the sole country which is not willing to see peace in the region. Since the beginning of the third millennium, Bashar Al-Assad adopted a new policy to provide all-out support for all groups and political currents which were part of the anti-Israeli resistance and especially supported those fronts which were not bound by a peace treaty, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah group or the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. In its pursuit of this policy, Syria has also enjoyed the full backing of Iran. This time, instead of the states, it was the resistance organizations and other anti-Israeli movements both inside and outside the occupied Palestine, which hoisted the flag of struggles against Israel and its expansionist policies. Among the important achievements of this turn of strategy were explicit failures of Israel in its 33-day and 22-day wars, respectively against Lebanon and the besieged Gaza Strip, which aimed to defuse the strategy of shifting the duty of fighting Israel from states to anti-Israeli organizations. In fact, Israel blamed the joint axis of Iran and Syria for its strategic failures. Therefore, since that time, efforts to cut the existing ties between Iran and Syria, as the main members of the regional anti-Israeli resistance axis, have remained at the top of the political agenda of the Tel Aviv.

Apart from how a government should deal with a social crisis, when it comes to Syria and Bashar Al-Assad’s policy, there is an important point regarding the ongoing crisis in the Arab country. The government of Syria never foresee [or foresaw but underestimated] the possibility that instead of engaging in a face-to-face confrontation with Syria in known fronts, Israel and the United States will embark on a hefty investment to target the very center of Syria’s political power instead of targeting its periphery or the regional arms of Syria and Iran. The same can be also said more or less about Iran.

As a result, the government of Bashar Al-Assad and Syria actually experienced an internal shock when they saw the enemy is entering their backyard in order to bring the “center” to its feet while removing the periphery or the regional arms of this country from its list of immediate targets. As a result of that shock, they decided to transfer their full force to a place they never anticipated. Of course, despite certain essential differences among the uprisings in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, the regional atmosphere which was created as a result of the sweeping wave of Arab uprisings and revolutions proved to be of great help to those regional forces which were either age-old antagonists of Assad’s government (like the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), or saw their chance to take the wave of the Arab uprisings and revolutions into Syria.

As a first step in managing the crisis, Assad lived up to his word for introducing certain reforms in the country. He ordered a new Constitution to be drawn up for the country and invited his opposition to sit for negotiations in order to formulate a new model for the country’s government. However, the reforms introduced by the Syrian government apparently suffered from anachronism. As for the Syria issue, I have already pointed out elsewhere that nobody can claim that even in case it gains power, the Syrian opposition, especially that part of the opposition which will not depend on foreign solutions, would be able to introduce more profound reforms than offered by the government of Bashar Al-Assad. However, the main issue in Syria is not implementation of democratic reforms and bringing down the wall of distrust between the government and the opposition to put an end to their exaggerated claims. The main issue is related to the position of Syria in regional conflicts, topped by the chronic conflict between Arabs and Israel, and the way that Syria would choose to deal with it. It is an undeniable fact that the government of Bashar Al-Assad has managed on the basis of the above reasons to keep peace and tranquility along the Golan Heights, which have been under the Israeli occupation for four decades, and has done this within framework of the agreement for the deployment of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) after the war with Israel in October 1973. Israel should know that this is a great point which has been given to it by the Syrian leadership because if the status quo is disturbed for any reason, Israel will become a victim of its own miscalculations and those of other parties. The implied meaning of this equation is that if the current leaders of Syria accepted the conditions set for them by the United States and Israel about the necessity to cut relations with their periphery and regional arms and also severed all relations with the strategic center of the regional power, namely, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the literature used by the leaders of the United States would also change and they would choose other formulas such as one they have already applied to Yemen.

Second – Two years after its inception, the domestic crisis in Syria can be divided into two parts. The first part consists of the military aspects of the crisis. In this part, one may categorically claim that no remarkable change has occurred in the balance of power between the two belligerent sides, that is, the Syrian government and army, on the one hand, and the armed opposition, on the other hand. The vast military, financial and media support provided by the majority of the regional Arab states and certain Western countries to the Syrian opposition has not been so far able to change the situation of Bashar Al-Assad’s government for the worst. As a result, one may conclude that the balance of the existing forces will remain in place until further notice unless a new equation which would be able to replace the old one enters the scene. This situation has had a direct effect on the second part of the Syria crisis, which is its political part. As for the political aspect of the Syria crisis, it may be alleged that profound changes are currently apparent in the political positions of the Western countries, with the exception of France, with regard to the ongoing political crisis in Syria. The early signs of these changes can be already seen on the horizon. The traditional claim that “Bashar Al-Assad has lost legitimacy and should go,” has been eliminated from the political literature of the Western countries, especially the United States, and has been replaced with support for any means which would facilitate negotiations between the government in Damascus and its opposition. A prominent example of the change in the Western countries’ approach to Syria could be seen in the conditional announcement of readiness to negotiate with the Syrian government by the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition Moaz Al-Khatib. He made the announcement on his personal page on the Facebook. It clearly proved that he, as representing the opposition, is ready to engage in talks with the Syrian government. It seems that the Western countries were waiting to see such a willingness to engage in negotiation among the opposition leadership in order to get themselves rid of the past allegations about the need for Assad to step down. At present, the political literature used by the Western countries is focused on the necessity to implement the Geneva Conventions in order to find a peaceful and negotiated solution to the crisis in Syria. Therefore, the issue of the legitimacy of Bashar Al-Assad’s government is no more a precondition for negotiations and the way has been paved for ending the crisis through political means. Therefore, the main problem now is within the ranks of the armed Syria opposition, not within Assad’s government, because the issue of negotiations and domestic talks between the government and the opposition has been atop of Damascus list of priorities since the crisis broke out. Even in the last reshuffle of his Cabinet, Assad created a new ministry for the promotion of the national reconciliation. The armed opposition in Syria, however, had taken its demands to such a high level in the early days of the crisis in Syria that it is not easy for them to modify their demands now.

As a result, it seems that the conditions are ready for the precedence to be given to a reconciliation formula to be worked out between the government and the unarmed opposition forces. The armed opposition will gradually have to join this process.

Third – Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, an important and strategic point about the equation of political developments in the Arab country has been largely ignored and received less attention that it actually deserved. That point is the current situation of the Syrian armed forces and the involvement of the country’s popular military forces in a civil war. From a strategic viewpoint, all the powerful armed forces in the region, especially the armed forces of countries which have common border with the occupied Palestine, have collapsed as a result of developments that have taken place in the past decade, or have been reduced to a debilitated border guard carrying weapons. I have written elsewhere that from a strategic viewpoint, getting the Syrian army engaged in a domestic conflict will bar it from further pursuit of the strategy that Syria has been following for several decades for the establishment of strategic balance of power with the armed forces of Israel. In strategic terms, the Israeli army has suffered horrible blows as a result of its failure in the July 2006 war with the Lebanese Hezbollah and its further fiascos in two confrontations with the Palestinian combatants. As a result, the legend of the “indestructible army” has been shattered as the Israeli army has practically lost its ability to introduce major geostrategic changes in the region. On the other hand, [the West believes that] the situation in Arab countries should be managed in such a way that the capabilities of Arab armies, especially that of Syria, would be reduced to a level where they would not be able to pose any threat to Israel. Just look at the weapons which have been supplied by the Western states to the armed opposition in Syria in terms of both quality and quantity. Most of those weapons are aimed at destroying the armored units of the Syrian army. Therefore, one may say that the armed opposition fighting against the Syrian government will only accept to engage in political talks with the Syrian government if their Western and regional supporters reach the conclusion that the Syrian army has reached a level that in terms of balance of powers, it stands on an equal footing with the armed forces of Israel. In that case, the Syrian army will naturally have no impact on the political equations related to the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Israel.

*Seyed Hussein Mousavi is the President of the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC)

Key Words: Syria Crisis, Arabs and Israel, Strategic Power Balance, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Western Countries, Syrian National Coalition, Mousavi

Source: Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

More By Seyed Hussein Mousavi:

*US’ Double Logic on the Syrian Crisis:’_Double_Logic_on_the_Syrian_Crisis.htm

*The Political Crisis in Iraq and the Best Way Out:

*Middle East Developments and US Pressures against Iran:

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