Posted by Matthew Barber on Saturday, February 7th, 2015
by Julio Rivera
Julio Rivera is a PhD student in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago where he focuses on Syrian political history. Before pursuing his PhD, Julio spent three years working as a Syria political analyst for the Department of Defense, spanning the period prior to and during the current Syria crisis. Follow Julio on twitter: @juliorivera77
J.K. Gani’s The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations: Conflict and Cooperation is an excellent resource for scholars, policymakers, and Syria watchers alike who are interested in understanding how Washington’s policies from 1946 to 2000 have solidified Syria’s ongoing mistrust of and hostility toward the US role in the region, as well as a useful guide to identifying the limits of Syrian-US cooperation. This book fills a large gap in the history of Syrian-US relations, as prior works often dealt narrowly with the peace process, the post-9/11 era, or the post-Ottoman era up to the moment of Syria’s political union with Egypt in 1958—a time when Damascus still controlled the Golan Heights.
Due to the dearth or inaccessibility of Syrian internal memos detailing their private perceptions and motivations during this period, Gani’s research draws primarily on US and British archival material that sheds light on the thinking of Syrian officials. The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations makes the compelling argument that Syria’s Arab nationalist and anti-imperial outlook, hardened over time by what was perceived as the US’s disingenuous agenda in the region, has greatly influenced its foreign policy and contends that Syria’s decisions to either confront or cooperate with the West should be viewed as pragmatic calculations guided by—as opposed to a blind adherence to—ideology.
Gani’s primary research method is historical analysis, which helps to contextualize Syrian animosity towards Western hegemony over the years. The book is broken into four parts highlighting different stages of the Syrian-US relationship: 1) The emergence of US-Syrian relations from Truman to Kennedy; 2) Syria’s isolation and the birth of the US-Israeli special relationship (specifically as it relates to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War); 3) US-Syrian disengagement talks from 1973-1975; and 4) instances of US-Syrian cooperation in the post-Cold War era. The book argues that while Syrian uneasiness regarding Western intentions (due largely to the country’s experience under the French Mandate) pre-dated Damascus’ suspicious attitude towards Washington, the US’s actions following Syrian independence in 1946 would result in a perception of the US being “second-generation imperialists” from the viewpoint of Damascus.
However, Gani points out that to assume Syrian-US relations were doomed from the start (given Syria’s prior attitudes towards the mandate authorities) overlooks the hopes Syrians and the region in general had for the US to chart a different course. Unlike the French and the British, Washington maintained a largely isolationist policy following WWI, and the Wilsonian Principles of Self-Determination (1919) coupled with the US’s support for the dissolution of the mandate system within the UN positioned the US to play a positive role in supporting the aspirations of self-determination throughout the region. Despite its initial openness towards Arab self-determination, Washington’s backing of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which prompted an ensuing refugee crisis, and the shift in focus towards combating the spread of communism throughout the world, altered the paradigm and prompted the US to view the region solely through the lens of collecting resources to strengthen itself and its allies against the Soviets. In light of these changing dynamics, any critique by Syrian officials of the US or its regional allies made Damascus appear as if it were simply a Soviet satellite. Such appearances prompted the Eisenhower administration in 1957 to support a coup in Syria, which was discovered and prevented by Damascus.
Although suspicion and aggression have continued to cast a shadow on Syrian-US relations even up through the present conflict, the book highlights moments, particularly during and after the First Gulf War, where Damascus appeared to shed its anti-Western ideology in favor of cooperation with the US. While Gani acknowledges that Damascus was likely motivated in part by Washington’s “unipolar” moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she notes that from Syria’s perspective, it wasn’t necessarily abandoning ideology but rather calibrating its response in light of the more global consensus in favor of US and coalition action, as well as the support from the UN. By allying with the West in this moment, Damascus was attempting to not only safeguard Arab unity by preventing inter-Arab warfare, but was also calling for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait in an effort to create parallels with the peace process in the hopes of convincing the US of the rationale for Israel to similarly withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.
Syria’s cooperation with the US did provide added reason to jumpstart the peace process in 1991, this time in Madrid; yet Syria’s hopes for achieving results were ultimately dashed. Gani views Damascus’s willingness to compromise its longstanding principle of not holding separate bilateral negotiations with Israel, as an important step. For their part, Israeli negotiators, feeling insulated by prior promises from earlier US administrations, did not believe they had to compromise on the Golan Heights and even continued settlement construction at the time despite US pronouncements that such activity was “a deliberate effort to sabotage peace.” The Syrian track would soon result in a stalemate, while separate negotiations with the Palestinians and subsequent Oslo agreements in the mid-90s further convinced Damascus that such “second-generation imperialists” were merely looking to divide and conquer the Arab states.
By virtue of her historical analysis, Gani calls on her readers to understand Damascus’ adherence to an ideology which is pro-Arab nationalist, pro-self determination, and reasonably suspicious of the West’s regional ambitions. Unlike other works which often offer a very US-centric version of Syria as the “obstructionist” in the relationship, this book presents Damascus’ rationale for sticking to its anti-Western, Arab nationalist ideology in the face of repeated empty promises and outright hostility.
Ultimately, this work leaves the reader with the feeling that the prospects for genuine, long-term cooperation between both parties are slim to none. The US has done little over the years to convey that it has Syria’s interests at heart, which has only entrenched Syria’s confrontational attitude towards Western hegemony. So while temporary situations may present themselves as opportunities for cooperation between Damascus and Washington, they are likely to remain short lived as the overall trajectory portends continued mutual hostility. The current debates surrounding the question of whether or not the US should cooperate with the Asad regime in their mutual fight against ISIS is a prime example of the moments when interests align, yet such an approach is unlikely to translate into a long-term strategic partnership given the several other outstanding issues in the US-Syrian relationship.
It would have been useful had the book contained a developed suggestion on the most promising solution to the projected impasse in the relationship. Gani briefly mentions a few possible scenarios wherein the Syrians could give up their ideological stance or the US could drop its support to Israel, but both seem highly unlikely given the compounding US actions which continue to widen the gulf between the two and the limited positive signals from Damascus that could demonstrate its potential as an ally worth exchanging Israel for. While she does mention that an end to external interference or a handing over of Israeli-occupied lands is another alternative, she doesn’t seem to place the onus on either Syria or the US to bring about that change.
To extend a brief argument informed by Gani’s work, I would propose that from a long-term strategic perspective the ball is in the US’s court, regardless of whether the Asad regime or some other post-Asad system emerges from the current crisis. For the current regime—absent a more even-handed approach to Syria, and a clear US role in implementing an equitable resolution to Palestinian statelessness and the Israeli-occupied territories, including the Golan Heights—Washington’s policies will continue to aggravate a country that maintains its right to regain its lost territory, as Egypt did, on the basis of international agreements like UN Resolution 242 and 338. Without such a shift, Damascus will continue to provide support to Israel’s enemies—armed Palestinian resistance groups, Hizballah, and Iran—and thus fail to build confidence with its southern neighbor. This is another side to this discussion that this work could have benefited from. For the Syrian opposition, should the US fail to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis and provide genuine assistance to anti-regime forces, not to mention prepare for the possibility of leading the post-Asad state building efforts, the Syrian oppositionists will determine—as many already have—that the US is not a true partner with the Syrian people and that they will have to look elsewhere, potentially among the US’s enemies, for support. Without such unlikely shifts in policy, the US should not hope that hedging its bets by not fully committing to either side will yield anything more than a short term status quo lacking any true long-term improvement in its relationship with either side in Syria.
It is important to consider the insights that Gani’s work can provide at a time when some US policymakers may entertain the possibility of an alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS. What policy makers need to decide at this juncture is whether the short-term gain of cooperating with the Asad regime in the fight against ISIS is worth the long-term consequences. Reports already suggest that the U.S. has spent over $1 billion with estimated projections ranging as high as $10-15 billion a year in an expanded air campaign. The U.S. could decide to work with Asad’s troops in the hopes of having a reliable ground force for combined air and ground operations against ISIS inside Syria, but such a strategy does not guarantee military success against ISIS in Iraq. Additionally, this level of cooperation will not erase the decades of mistrust Damascus has towards Washington (and vice versa) and without a major shift in the U.S.’s regional policies, Syria’s leaders will continue to hold political positions towards Israel that will remain unpalatable to Western officials. What Gani’s work teaches us is that there are limits to U.S. cooperation with the current Syrian regime, and Washington must decide if the billions it will spend are worth investing in a government that history has shown will not easily embrace a genuine strategic partnership.
All in all, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations provides a well defended argument for why Syrians justifiably felt cornered throughout their history and continue to remain suspicious of Western involvement in the region. Misunderstandings and perceptions of the other have negatively impacted Syrian-US relations over the years, and J.K. Gani’s scholarly contribution is not only timely but critical in a period of great uncertainty regarding the future of Syria and how the US will address this question. Gani’s book therefore serves as a great resource and a must have for scholars of modern Syria or US foreign policy after World War II, and those interested in contextualizing what a short-term alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS may or may not mean for their mutual long-term relationship.