Assad Plays Arab, Western Worlds against Each Other

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text 'God protects Syria' on the old city wall of Damascus in 2006 (Photo: Bertilvidet)

By Ahmed Meiloud

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tells the West that his regime is essential to their survival, while telling the Arab world that he’s the victim of a Western conspiracy

It is clear why Iran and Hezbollah came to the rescue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – their alliances with the Alawite regime stretch back decades. What is less known is why the Saudis and the Israelis appear so invested in Assad staying in power.

When speaking to an Arabic audience, Syrian officials decry a conspiracy against their country by Israel, the Americans and regressive Arab states. All these actors, according to the official narrative, are displeased with Syria’s “principled stance” in support of the Palestinians.

When addressing a Western audience, however, Syrian officials plead with the West to save the regime. They argue that Damascus is a safeguard for the West, and especially for Israel, against the rise of uncompromising fundamentalist forces which are bound to come to power should Alawite rule fall.

The two messages are contradictory, but that is not that unusual in the Middle East. The late king of African kings, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, built his profile around fighting imperialism and defending the right of the people from the south, yet he was also quick to warn the West in general and Europeans in particular of a flood of hungry Africans and angry Muslim militants should his rule falter. Syria, however, remains a more complex case.

In the early days of the Syrians uprising, when the momentum of the “Arab Spring” was in favor of the revolution and when Assad’s camp was severely shaken by the possibility of losing their grip on power (there was a continuous hemorrhaging of the Syrian army defectors, and many key towns appeared outside the government control), Assad’s rich cousin, Rami Makhlouf, told the New York Times that the stability of Israel was closely tied to that of his country.

As expected, the interview quickly generated debate in the Arab world about a topic that has always been rumored about but never substantiated. Was there an understanding between the Assad’s family and the Israelis which guarantees the security of the country and the survival of his regime? Was the rhetoric of resistance simply rhetoric and no more?

Sensing the damage that this interview could do, the Syrian regime went quickly on a damage-control campaign. Two lines of defense were pursued. First, the Syrian government, represented by its embassy in the US and also through its other organs, quickly issued statements proclaiming that Makhlouf’s views don’t represent those of the government.

Secondly and in a less formal manner, Syria has asserted that it considers the ongoing insurrection to be an international conspiracy led by the US, Israel and regressive Arab regimes to bring down a progressive anti-colonial regime. Those comments, therefore, should not be read as a link between the Syrian government and Israel, but rather a message that Syria knows who is behind the unrest and that it would retaliate should pressure continued to mount.

The Quiet Americans

Any independent observer knows that neither of these explanations is valid. To be sure, there were precedents that justify Syria’s fear of US meddling in its affairs, the current situation is, however, different.

Back in April 2003 when the Americans entered Baghdad with a relative ease and “shock and awe” seemed to go as planned, then US secretary of defense Donald H Rumsfeld warned that Syria should heed the lesson of its neighbor. A week earlier, Rumsfeld had accused the Syrians of supplying Iraq with night goggles and other military equipment.

Syria was also named as part of former US president George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil” in 2002. At the time, Assad took the threat seriously and judged – rightly perhaps – that his stay in power was contingent on keeping the Americans busy in Baghdad.

To that end, he played a complex game. His intelligence services turned blind eyes to the trafficking on the border, especially the movement of insurgents from and into Iraq. His embassies abroad welcomed thousands of Arab volunteers from across the Arab world who weren’t particularly gleeful at the sight of the US Marines marching through what was once the glorious capital of Harun al-Rashid.

Although the regime in Syria despises the motives of these insurgents and its laws incriminate their ideological inclinations, these men found their trip to Iraq’s triangle of death through Damascus a stress-free one.

The wrong conclusion to draw here is to assume that the Syrians wanted to liberate Iraq or save its Baath party. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Syria has never missed a chance to try to undermine the Baath regime in Iraq, taking the side of Iran in the deadly Iran-Iraq war of 1980s and siding again with America itself in Operation Desert Storm. The Syrian objective was limited to making sure the Americans don’t feel too comfortable in Iraq. A family regime with a record of survival in a colonial crossroad knew quite well that a colonial power with too much free time at one’s borders is never good.

But as history has proven time and again, Arab jihadists are an extremely liquid asset. One can use them to undermine an enemy and one could also sell them-as a gesture of goodwill- to the same adversary once a rapprochement seems possible.

That’s precisely what the Syrians did. When the time seemed ripe, they traded their record with these jihadists to the Americans, who were bogged down in Iraq while conducting an international war on ghosts. Victory in this war-elusive as it was- depended on the willful and coerced cooperation of Arab intelligence services whose citizens constituted the lion’s share of America’s most wanted targets. Much like their American counterparts, the Syrians would also learn-tardily one must say-the inconvenient cost of providing assistance to these insurgents.

It should be kept in mind that while this background of hostility existed, the days when America wanted go to war with Syria had long gone by the time the 2011 revolution started. The atmosphere of hostility in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion was replaced by one of intelligence sharing and an increase in bilateral trade. In 2010 – mere months before the start of the revolution – US exports to Syria had reached a record high of a half billion dollars. The preceding years (2009 and 2008) had also seen a rise in US exports to Syria and a trade surplus in the former’s favor.

Moreover, there was no sign that Syria was “misbehaving”. Despite Israel’s unprovoked raid in 2007, Israeli interests and security, which are key to US Middle East policy, didn’t seem to be in any danger.

Since the end of the 2006 failed Israeli campaign in Lebanon, the Lebanese borders have been calm. Syria’s own borders had also been quiet since 1973 until the civil war. In short, the Americans have had no incentive to seek to destabilize the regime in Damascus. For them and their Israeli allies, Assad was not only the devil they know but the one they had partnered with. That partnership included outsourcing detainees’ torture to the Syrian regime, which is notorious for its brutality.

Furthermore, Makhlouf was not just a Syrian expressing his views. Makhlouf is a close confidant of Assad, and runs a massive financial empire which both depends on, and contributes to, the corrupt and corrupting power of Assad. Makhlouf himself was pressed then by the New York Times to clarify whether his statement meant a threat of war against Israel. His response was more of a plea, not a menace: “I didn’t say war,” he said. “What I’m saying is don’t let us suffer, don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”

That reply has little to do with the rhetoric at home about countering the imperial design, which the Syrian official media and a plethora of writers-for-hire across the Arab world never cease to invoke. This is not a representative of Assad (the lion), issuing a threat to protect a country. This is a dictator’s spokesperson appealing to the West to save the dictator’s seat, reminding it of something that is so dear to it: the safety and security of Israel. This is a constant of the regime’s foreign policy, no matter what variables changed in the region.

Whenever the Israelis want to send a strong message to the ruling family in Damascus, the threat was never about attacking Syria itself – Israel does without warning – but rather a threat of bringing the regime down. And that was indeed the part that the Assads heeded. Although officially at war with Israel, no single bullet was fired from the Syrian territory toward the country, which Assad’s regime describes as a Zionist enemy that has occupied an important Syrian territory since 1973.

The Other Camp David Accords

The state of no peace, no war, where Israel keeps the strategic Golan Heights and bombs Syrian targets at will fearing no response, not even a complaint sometimes – and where the Assads deploys the rhetoric of bravado in an imaginary war with Israel – was the magical formula that ensured the security of Israel and the continuity of the Assad family. This was a “Camp David Accord” without long meetings and without signatures, a relationship of clientelism without the costly and meaningless formalities of paperwork.

Such accord was good for everyone. The Americans did not have to bribe the Arab side in this accord, as they did in the Egyptian and Jordanian cases. Similarly, this unspoken accord offers the Israelis guarantees of calm on one border, with an open chance to humiliate, but not weaken Assad, even if this humiliation is not set in public record as was the case with Sadat.

For Assad, this is the best possible deal for an Arab dictator to protect his seat in a time of Arab defeat. Unlike Sadat and Mubarak after him, the Assads did not have to go through the public humiliation of surrendering to Israel, nor did they have to surrender control over their army, increasing the chance of engineering change during periods of hormonal surges in DC before and after elections. Under this arrangement, they could still play the victim-hero card (recto and verso) before the Syrians. The reason is simple: “Since the threat from Israel has been the essential and necessary myth for retaining the authoritarian grip of the Alawite minority in Damascus, losing it would eliminate the al-Assad regime’s raison d’etre.”

Now with the Syrian war raging for the third year, it is clear that Makhlouf’s threat was not meant to deter an Israeli aggression against his country or its military capabilities, but rather against toppling the regime itself. The Israelis have ever since carried out at least two aerial raids in Syria, one time was so close to Assad’s home that the entire neighborhood was shaken. Whatever the Israeli targets may have been (long range missiles, advanced anti-tank or anti-ships guided missiles), the Israelis did not target Bashar al-Assad. For abiding by that unspoken rule, Bashar gratefully did what he always did in such circumstances: kept silent. The Israelis were the ones who leaked the news to the international press, mostly to boast about their capabilities and to try to regain some of the deterrence they had lost during their earlier disastrous shows in Lebanon and Gaza.

Makhlouf’s statement may well have achieved its goal as his message seemed to have resonated with the Israelis, who are convinced that Assad (embattled but in power) is better for their strategic goals. Until the summer of last year, Israel had pressured and pleaded with Western powers not to arm the Syrian repels, preferring that the war would drag further, with Assad maintaining the upper hands. This was a plea most Western powers were happy to heed. However, starting from June of 2o13, the Israelis slightly shifted their position, at least publicly. The change was not in favor of game-changing armament deals for the Syrian rebels but for some military assistance that would inflict heavy losses on its archenemy Hezbollah who is playing an increasing role in the conflict.

The Arab Monarchs

That change of perspective was made in part also because of some novel developments in another crucial story for the Israelis. In the latter part of spring, there were clear signs that a broad coalition to topple the Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was forming. A group of Egyptian liberals, including the Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed ElBaradei, the academic Sa‘d Din Ibrahim, and the businessman Naguib Sawiris, was holding meetings with Western diplomats trying to obtain their support for a military overthrow of the regime.

Another diplomat, the former head of the Arab League Amr Mosa, was secretly leading a parallel effort, carrying messages between the UAE, Egyptian army and Israel.  As the deadline of the overthrow seemed near, the coup appeared to have the backing of key players including the Saudis, who were radically redefining their strategic objectives.

Although suspicious of the long-term objectives of the Muslim Brothers and of the Arab spring in general, they had no active plan to remove them from power. The UAE persuaded the Saudis that a window of opportunity existed and that they must seize it. The planning to overthrow the Muslim Brothers brought the Israelis, the Emiratis and the Saudis together.

In regards to Syria, this new shift meant that the Saudis would invest less in support of the Syrian uprising and more in the Egyptian putsch. The Saudis already share, inadvertently perhaps, with the Israelis the desire to maintain a stalemate in Syria. A war with no victors in Syria serves three Saudi objectives. First, such war would keep the Iranian economy bleeding. Second, a bloody and messy war will slow the drive for regime change in the Arab world. And finally, the sectarian dimension of the war gives the Saudis the chance to send thousands of their energetic youth to be the fodder of the Syrian artillery, thus preempting calls for change home.

This last objective remained, however, problematic. Instead of being incinerated en masse, Syria became a ground in which these Saudi youth created bases and gained military skills that could potentially be used to militate against the royal family should hostilities in cease.

The fresh recruits from Saudi Arabia met with their war-hardened brethren who have now become their mentors. These mentors not only have a greater military experience, having fought in Iraq and other areas of the world, but also despise the Saudi regime. Their success in Syria would mean a considerable expansion of the reach of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The re-assessment of the Syrian debacle constituted the background, not only of the shift to focus on the Egyptian scene, but the recent terrorism laws enacted by the Saudi monarchy, targeting – along with the Muslim Brothers – most of the Islamist groups currently active in Syria.

With that development it was clear that the Assads will gain a considerable edge over the forces of the opposition, who will not be squeezed from all sides. This meant that the Israeli opposition to the calls to arm the Syrian rebels, which falls always on deaf ears, are not necessary. The devil the Israelis know and partner with will remain in power even over the rubble of what was once the Arabic Republic of Syria.

The US policy is vastly influenced by this Israeli creed, and it is all the better that the other important American ally in the region, the Saudis, is not particularly invested in a regime-change project in Syria. Despite Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of Syrians using conventional and not so conventional weapons, the American pressure which accumulated over the past summer, as a result of the global outrage, stopped short of taking measures to soften Assad’s crip on power. When he handed over what could potentially threaten the Israelis, he was spared military intervention. He could now continue incinerating his citizens with crude bomb barrels as the US enthusiasm to help the Syrian rebels started to faint.

Assad’s ability to withstand the last three years of insurrection, which had left the county’s economy in ruin, and the recent advances of forces loyal to him in Homs, while remain small and reversible, are all made possible but a confluence of geopolitical factors, and aren’t simply products of power distribution in Syria. While forces loyal to Assad have always enjoyed a qualitative edge over their adversaries combined, the Assad trust only limited divisions of the army. And although these divisions are heavily armed, they are poorly trained. Syria has never had historically any solid professional army and its poor performance whether in Lebanon or on the border with Israel was a testimony to that facts.

Rather than surviving a global conspiracy as Syrian official rhetoric proclaims, Assad’s owes his continuity in power to the vested interests of multiple regional and global players to maintain the status quo in Syria. The focal point of this is the convergence of the interests of the Saudis, traditional Gulf States and the Israelis who would like to keep the old arrangements and stem change in the region. Ironically, in the Syria context the interests of all presumed enemies meet. Iran and Hezbollah defend the same regime, which Israel and Saudi Arabia prefer to remain, even if bleeding. The American and the Russian positions on Syria weren’t particularly far off from each other from the beginning, and were eventually bridged with the chemical weapons’ deal. Makhlouf’s statement may not after all be misplaced.  Syria maybe facing a global conspiracy, but that Syria isn’t the Syria of Assads.

– Ahmed Meiloud is a PhD student at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include studying the various movements of political Islam across the Arab World, with special focus on the works of the thinkers, jurists and public intellectuals who shape the moderate strands of Islamism. (This article was originally published in Middle East Eye – www.middleeasteye.net – and is republished here with permission from the author.)

2 Comments

  1. the author talks from both sides of his mouth. He is either misguided or on israel’s payroll. Anyone with a lick of common sense would not spout such unsubstantiated rubbish.Israel and Saudi Arabia are committed to President Assad’s downfall and weakening of Syria into chaos as was done in Libya,and other obvious countries. All at the behest of Israel.

  2. Wow how powerful we Jews are; everything is at the behest of Israel eh serul. So how come my wife won’t fold my washing – I guess she hasn’t heard about our omnipotence! Or you’ve never heard of anything other than weirdo conspiracy theories of the Arab world.

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