Israel Policy Forum – Special Report
26 February 2007
There is a general tendency in the West to describe countries like Syria, and its regime in Damascus, in blanket political and (often) moral terms. Such analysis is an oversimplification in most countries but particularly so in Syria, which has an immensely complicated geopolitical position in the Middle East. To be of any use, Syria must be scrutinized.
More so than any other Arab country, Syria’s government and its power brokers are inherently secular and opportunistic, driven by good-old-fashioned survival instincts. When mixed with Syria’s distinctive geography, this opportunism has led the Syrian government to play a disproportionately large role in the numerous conflicts plaguing the entire region. Without question, Syria is at the physical and political center of Middle East politics.
To the southwest is Israel, the unwelcome Jewish neighbor who captured and annexed the Golan Heights after resisting Syrian invasions in 1967 and again in 1973.
To the west is Lebanon, serving as a Syrian playground and cash cow for nearly three decades, until Damascus over-played its hand and was dealt a very visible and painful defeat by reformists that still reverberates today.
To the east is Iraq, the hotbed of a failed US occupation—a failure, US officials say, thanks in large measure to Syria’s refusal to monitor jihadist movement across its 605km border with Iraq.
And beyond Iraq to the east is Iran, the Islamic Republic ascending to be perhaps the dominant Muslim player in Middle East politics—explicitly recruiting (and buying) the support of Syria and several extremist groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
It is often tempting (especially from an American and post-9/11 perspective) to dismiss the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a blatant sponsor of terror—a role that he even admits openly, though framed in a different context.
Unsurprisingly, 9/11 has led most westerners to view terrorism in black-and-white terms, but given the tremendous complexity of Assad’s precarious regime and very precise interests, it would be a grave mistake to use the understandable western disdain for terrorism to justify a refusal to view Syria in anything but Manichean terms.
In order to engage Syria with any substantive or symbolic diplomacy, it is crucial to understand the nuances of what is important to the ruling Assad family and the tenuous balancing act that Syria must (and usually does) maintain. Only then can the obstacles to Syrian interests provide texture to the behavior of the Syrian government, and its role in the wider Middle East.