UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Syria - Foreign Relations

The traditional Syrian style in foreign policy is playing for time and survival against international pressure on a range of issues, much like the stone soup fable with protagonists stirring a stone and water in a pot to elicit outside contributions, while adding nothing themselves. Syria has a history of suggesting it will take actions in the hope of winning foreign policy concessions in exchange for little action on its part. Some Middle Eastern players are indispensable, others, like Syria, are unavoidable. Syria may not be pivotal but it is central, in geographic as well as psychological terms. A decision to engage with Syria would almost certainly prove to be frustrating, labor-intensive, and costly, at least in terms of quid pro quos.

Ensuring regime survival, maintaining influence among its Arab neighbors, and achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement, which includes the return of the Golan Heights, are the primary goals of President Asad's foreign policy. Vocal Turkish and Arab League criticism of the Asad regime’s repression of protests has drastically limited Syrian influence in the region. Syria will resort to its traditional tactic of playing all sides off each other, to avoid making the hard choices that real regional peace would require.

The Middle East region is characterized by a high degree of complexity/volatility, and a high profile of geopolitical visibility. Sweltering on the heat of the longest Arab-Israeli conflict, and the ongoing violence in Iraq, the region presents a challenge for any state, with war in Iraq; Israeli-Palestinian conflict; tension between Israel and Lebanon—Hezbollah; the Golan Height dispute; international relations with Iran; and tension between Kurds and the nations of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. This environment has resulted in Syria receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees over the last few decades. In 2007, Syria had the world’s second largest number of refugees (1.5 million) and that number has continued to grow. It is now the third highest ratio of refugee population to total population (1:11). It is preceded only by West Bank and Gaza (1:2) and Jordan (1:9), andfollowed by Lebanon (1:12) — all of which are in the Middle East.

During the Cold War Syria's policy toward the superpowers and its Middle Eastern neighbors, as well as much of its domestic politics, continued to be affected profoundly by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because of the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Agreements, periodic Jordanian-Israeli mutual accommodation, and Israeli domination of southern Lebanon, Syria perceived itself as the last Arab confrontation state to share a border with Israel. Syria believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict had been reduced to a bilateral Syrian-Israeli conflict, in which other parties, including the Palestinians, were marginal.

Syria states it supports Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and reconciliation among Palestinian factions. Rather than taking any concrete actions in support of the Palestinian-Israeli track, Syria continues to allow HAMAS and other Palestinian rejectionist groups to take steps to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and derail the PA-Israeli peace talks.

Recovering the Golan Heights from Israel was the specific motive of Syria's policy, but it was only a part of a broader ambition of regional hegemony. Therefore, Syria's goal was to prevent Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), or Lebanon from formalizing Syria's isolation by entering into piecemeal settlements with Israel, while Syria simultaneously undermined Egypt's separate peace with Israel. Syria declared that the Arab nations could extract maximum concessions from Israel only by acting in concert, a policy some regional observers refer to as the "Assad Doctrine." Implicit in the Assad Doctrine is the assumption that Damascus will orchestrate Arab negotiations. Syria's central role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, therefore, is predicated to some extent on the older ideology of Greater Syria, the notion that Syria should dominate its Arab neighbors.

By the end of the Cold War Syria perceived regional politics in bipolar terms, dividing the Arab world into two camps: the rejectionist front of Syrian allies, and the capitulationists who advocated concessions to Israel. However, Syria's categorical classification of the Arab world seemed only to highlight its regional isolation. Syria's only partners in the "Arab Steadfastness and Confrontation Front" were Libya, Algeria, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen).

Syria reestablished full diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1989. In the 1990-91 Gulf War, Syria joined other Arab states in the U.S.-led multinational coalition against Iraq. In 1998, Syria began a slow rapprochement with Iraq, driven primarily by economic needs. Syria continued to play an active pan-Arab role after emerging from its relative isolation following the Hariri assassination, attempting to assert its influence regionally and expand diplomatic relations with Europe, Latin America, and China. In mid-2011, Syrian relations with Europe worsened following regime violence against the opposition movement, and EU and other development projects were shut down. Some countries in Latin America, especially Venezuela, have maintained good relations but contribute little to Syrian trade or development.

Syrian government officials are sticklers for diplomatic protocol, although they are not experts on the international conventions from which it is derived. The Syrian government places a high value on protocolary forms that ensure respectful treatment of state officials (despite bilateral differences) because such forms guarantee that the President and his representatives are shown proper courtesies by a world that is often at odds with Syria. Protocol conventions also reinforce the notion of equal relations between sovereign states and the Syrian government insists that communications between it and foreign embassies comply with traditional diplomatic practice.

The Syrians see every encounter as a transaction. The level and composition of the Syrian side of any meeting is carefully calculated in terms of protocol and the political message being sent; a lunch invitation must be interpreted as more than just the Arab compulsion to hospitality - who hosts the lunch is as important as who attends the meetings. When it comes to content, the Syrians seek to gain the highest value deliverable for the lowest price or no price at all.

Syrian government leadership genuinely believes that Syrian government foreign policy has been, is being, and will be vindicated by events. They also genuinely believe their foreign policy is based on morally defensible and intellectually solid principles, although it is usually reactive and opportunistic. Existing policy choices are immutable unless the President decides to change them, in which case, his new policies, despite any appearances to the contrary, are consistent with "traditional" principles. Baathism infuses foreign policy principles (Pan-Arabism) but pragmatism is more important. More recently, Bashar's like or dislike of other leaders plays a role in policy formulation.

Syrian foreign policy is formulated in response to external developments (changes in regional leadership, initiatives from the West, etc). The Syrian government does not launch initiatives and generally seeks cover from allies when exploring new courses of action. The Syrian government is much more confident on the Arab level than on the international level. Syrian government policy responses are generally tactical and operational, exploratory rather than decisive, oblique instead of direct. Strategy, to the extent it exists, emerges from a series of tactical choices. The lack of initiative appears rooted in an underlying sense of diplomatic powerlessness. Every foreign policy embarrassment in Syria's history lies under the surface of a generally false projection of assertiveness. That assertiveness is sometimes read as arrogance.

The behaviors they employ as diplomatic "force-multipliers" are the hallmarks of a Syrian diplomatic style that is at best abrasive and, at its worst, brutal. At the end of the day, there are few who really like to deal with the Syrians. Every Syrian diplomatic relationship contains an element of friction. The Syrians are not troubled by discord; they seek an upper hand in any relationship by relying on foreign diplomats' instinctive desire to resolve problems. By withholding a solution, the Syrian government seeks to control the pace and temperature of the relationship. Syrian government officials artificially restrict their availability and can engage in harsh verbal attacks to intimidate and rattle foreign diplomats. Syrian government officials delight in disparaging their interlocutors behind their backs for allowing themselves to be cowed. On the international level, the President has indulged in personal criticisms of foreign leaders; unlike his father, he deliberately makes enemies when he doesn't necessarily have to. FM Muallim can behave similarly but he probably does so on the President's instructions.

Form is not substance but to move the Syrians to substance, one must first get past the hurdles of form, if only to find out if there is any point in persevering with the Syrians on issues of concern. The Syrians care deeply about honor and prestige. The Syrians want to believe they are engaged in a true exchange of views. Syrians have developed a strong aversion to listening to a list of demands, particularly from the US. The Syrians interpret such an approach not only as a breach of manners, but also as a challenge to the legitimacy of the regime.

The way an issue is presented to the Syrians is nearly as important as the content of the message. Formulating concerns in a positive spirit and acknowledging that Syria may well have concerns of its own could help to produce tangible results in the future and provide an incentive for Syria to resist near-term internal and external pressures to increase destructive behavior in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. Meetings elicit a familiar collection of bromides, obfuscation, and international relations jargon in response. The ability to humor token Syrian denials of any bad behavior also helped to avoid getting sidetracked from directing the conversation to achieving the desired objective. Any interlocutor must be prepared to endure long presentations of Syrian ideology and victimology.

Syrian officials at every level lie. They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie. While lower level officials often lie to avoid potential punitive action from their own government, senior level officials generally lie when they deem a topic too "dangerous" to discuss (e.g., Al-Kibar, IAEA) or when they have not yet determined whether or how to respond (Hezbollah arms supplies, etc). When a senior Syrian government official is lying, the key challenge is not demonstrating the lack of veracity but discovering the true reasons for it.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 26-03-2012 18:41:03 ZULU