A Historical and Contemporaneous Context for American Policy on Syria
By Robert G. Rabil – @robertgrabil
For Syria Comment October 4, 2016
With Aleppo under indiscriminate heavy bombardment and siege by the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, Iraqi Mobilization Units and Hezbollah, the pitch of the chorus of voices blaming and shaming the U.S. for not intervening militarily in Syria to stop the bloodshed has reached a crescendo not seen since the days preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Whereas some critical views offered heartfelt appeals to salvage Syria as a state and a nation, others bluntly blamed the failed policies of the Obama Administration for the tragedy befalling Syria.
This debate over the Obama’s administration policy on Syria was put recently on display by Secretary of State John Kerry. In a meeting with a small number of Syrian civilians, Secretary Kerry confessed that he had lost an argument within the Obama administration to back up diplomatic efforts with the threat of using military force against the Syrian regime. He also added that Congress would never agree to the use of force. According to the New York Times, several comments made in the meeting “crystallized the widespread sense of betrayal even among the Syrians most attractive to Washington as potential partners, civilians pushing for pluralistic democracy.”
No doubt, this notion of American betrayal and culpability cast a pall over the reliability and essence of Washington’s role in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the American role in Syria, though not beyond criticism, has been more emotively criticized than cerebrally expounded, especially as it relates to American national interest. Herein lay the confusion over and frustration with American foreign policy. In fact, the American role in Syria cannot be fully understood without being contextualized in a framework of reference according to which American national interest is evaluated on the basis of the modern history of U.S.-Syrian relationship, the crisis of the Arab world and American war on terrorism, and the new dawning of a global reality.
The history of the U.S.-Syrian relationship is conflicted and had been grounded in ambivalence, making a potential U.S. military involvement in Syria hardly possible. As I have shown in Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East, U.S.-Syrian relations have been marked by antagonism and ambivalence, not limited to the Asads’ reign. In fact, U.S. overtures to Syria were not only shunned but opposed. The U.S., unlike Britain and France, entertained no colonial ambitions in the Middle East. The U.S. relationship with Israel and Syria started on an equal footing after World War Two. The U.S. recognized the independence of Syria before supporting the creation of the state of Israel. The support for Israel was not meant to serve either as a bridgehead to American influence or as an outpost of imperialism. Nor was it a ploy to dictate Syrian policies. The Cold War and Arab nationalist policies, which equated Israel with colonialism, opened the gates of the heartland of the Middle East to the rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The main objective of the U.S. was to check Soviet expansion in the region, which fed on Arab grievances against the Western powers and their support of Israel.
When in November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, with Jerusalem as a separate enclave to be administered by a governor appointed by the international organization, Syrian demonstrators attacked the U.S. legation in Damascus. When in October 1950, the U.S., Britain, France, and Turkey formally proposed to Egypt the formation of a Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO), the purpose of which would serve to extend the containment of the Soviet Union to the heartland of the Middle East, Syrians denounced MEDO as an imperialist plot. Egypt’s refusal to enter MEDO and Syria’s opposition to it doomed it to failure. At the time, the U.S. had no special relations with either Syria or Israel. Its concern with containing the Soviet Union made it look at Israel and Syria through the prism of Cold War politics. When Western powers supported the Baghdad pact of 1955 as a means to counter the threat of communism, “progressive forces” in Syria, the Ba’th, the Democratic Bloc, and the Communists opposed the pact and consequently moved Syria in the direction of Egypt and the Soviet Union. This set the stage for the Middle East to become a ground of rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
No sooner, in July 1956, after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the British, French, and Israelis led a joint attack on Egypt in late October, which was frowned upon by the U.S. This emanated from a cluster of complex considerations. Prominent among them was, on the one hand, the attempt to woo away Egyptian nationalists from the Soviet embrace and, on the other hand, the concern over taking action that could deepen the Soviet embrace. In his memoirs, Eisenhower emphasized the implications of the attack for Arab nationalism:
I must say that it is hard for me to see any good final result emerging from a scheme that seems to antagonize the entire Moslem world. Indeed I have difficulty seeing any end whatsoever if all the Arabs should begin reacting somewhat as the North Africans have been operating against the French.[i]
The U.S. compelled Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza strip, both captured during the Suez war. Syria, for its part, immediately supported Egypt when the three powers invaded it. At the height of the crisis, Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli flew to Moscow to seek political and military support. Clearly, despite the high ground the U.S. had achieved in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Suez crisis, the Syrians saw in the Soviet Union a protector that readily poured much needed economic and military assistance in perilous times. Similarly, U.S. expectations of appreciation from the Arabs for intervention in the Suez crisis in their favor turned hollow.
Consequently, the U.S. feared a total Soviet victory in the region. In January 1957, Dulles addressed Congress stressing that “it would be a major disaster for the nations and peoples of the Middle East, and indeed for all the world, including the U.S., if that area were to fall into the grip of international communism.” He added that the U.S. “must do whatever it properly can to assist the nations of the Middle East to maintain their independence.”[ii] The Eisenhower administration had its way when Congress passed the joint resolution in March 1957, henceforth known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, conceding to the administration request that
The president is authorized to…employ the armed forces of the United States as he deems necessary to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of any such nation or group of nations requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.[iii]
The U.S. president sent Ambassador James P. Richards to the Middle East to inaugurate the new doctrine. Only Lebanon and Iraq endorsed the Doctrine. Syria refused to receive the Ambassador. Initially, Syria had rejected the Eisenhower doctrine on the grounds that intervention in the affairs of a nation over economic interests was a flagrant violation of the sovereignty principle; and that the American assertion that a power vacuum existed in the region was but a pretext for imperialist intervention and hegemony.[iv] By August 1957, the relationship between the U.S. and Syria sank to a new low when the Syrian government charged the U.S. with an attempt to overthrow it. The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a communiqué on August 19 announcing the discovery of the American plot. The communiqué emphasized that the goal of the Eisenhower doctrine was to seize the independence of Middle Eastern countries and offer them as easy prey to Zionism and imperialism. The U.S. rebuffed Syrian accusations, interpreting them as a “smokescreen behind which people that have the leftish leanings are trying to build up their power.”[v] Subsequently, the U.S. and Syrian ambassadors were declared personae non gratae in their respective host countries.
In 1963, the Ba’th party came to power through a coup d’etat. In order to support its militant attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and its socialist domestic policy, the Ba’th government cooperated closely with the Soviet Union to obtain financial and military aid. By contrast, Syria’s relations with the U.S. continued to deteriorate. The U.S., however, held both Syria and Israel responsible for the growing violence along their borders[vi]. It called later on upon Syria to insure that its territory would not be used as a base for terrorism against Israel.[vii] Heightened tension along the Israeli-Syrian border contributed to the eruption of the June 1967 War, following which Damascus broke off diplomatic relations with Washington.
US-Syrian relations remained abysmal until Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, following the 1973 war, brokered the 1974 Israel-Syria Disengagement Agreement over the Golan Heights. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was arduous but important because it conveyed to Arab leaders and particularly to Syrian president Hafiz Asad that without American support there is no return to the status quo ante. This complemented the overall strategy of the Nixon Administration in the Middle East, which set out to demonstrate that the Soviet Union’s capacity to foment crises was not matched by its ability to resolve them.[viii] The underlying implications of the American strategy were to prod the Arab leaders to approach Washington for assistance in the peace process and to make manifest the Arab’s anachronistic concept of all-or-nothing approach towards Israel.
This uneasy rapprochement between the U.S. and Syria was carried on by the Ford and the Carter administrations, especially that the latter had made the reflection of American values in foreign policy one of its central themes. The realpolitik and elliptical approach to foreign policy, which had characterized the State Department under Kissinger, was to be replaced by an open foreign policy, substituting “world order” for “balance of power,” and placing Human Rights issues high on the Administration’s agenda. Not surprisingly, Carter’s quest for idealism in foreign policy clashed with his geopolitical realism, resulting in an ambivalence, which was reinforced by the divergent world views of his principal advisers.
Significantly, this brief evolution of U.S.-Syrian relations was seriously hobbled when Syria appeared on the US State Department’s “terrorism list” in 1979. Still, Washington maintained a belief in Syria’s key regional role and in its capacity to influence events in the region. This led to the emergence of Washington’s ambivalent attitude toward Damascus, which became first apparent in Lebanon and then a hallmark of US-Syrian relations until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ironically, the terrorism issue, which precluded the US from improving its relationship with Syria, became the issue responsible for bringing the two countries together.
At the same time, U.S.-Syrian relations, mainly in the 1980s, were affected by the Cold War and the complexities and harsh realities of the Middle East in general and Israel and Syria’s struggle for Lebanon in particular. Significantly, the Reagan administration launched a peace initiative following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. However, the American involvement in Lebanon suffered a painful blow when 240 U.S. marines died in a terrorist attack on their headquarters in West Beirut in October 1983. Though fingers were directed to Iran as the sponsor of the terrorist who carried out the suicidal attack, Syrian involvement could not be ruled out.
The U.S., backing its diplomacy with the threat of force, fired battleship guns (the carrier, New Jersey) on Syrian dominated Lebanese positions. Syria fired back and shot down two American war planes, which had engaged in an exchange of fire. This marked the first direct confrontation between Washington and Damascus. However, amid sharp division and opposition to the U.S. role in Lebanon within the Reagan administration, President Reagan chose not to escalate the skirmishes to a full war. Both complexities and treacherous realities of the Lebanese civil war and the Arab-Israeli conflict flew in the face of America’s policy in the region. The U.S. redeployed its troops to U.S. ships offshore and put the peace initiative on the back burner.
US relations with Syria remained ambivalent straddling the ground of sanctions and cooperation. Interestingly, Syria was the only country listed on the US State Department’s terrorism list with which Washington maintained diplomatic relations. The height of cooperation ensued when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Syria participated in the US-led international coalition to extract Iraq from Kuwait. Consequently, US-Syrian relations warmed and Damascus became central to the Arab-Israeli peace process launched after the end of the Gulf War. Asad was hailed in the Arab world as Salahuddin, who wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders, and the steadfast Arab nationalist leader. During the peace process, Asad helped build the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon at the expense of the legitimacy of the state. Arab leaders and many intellectuals applauded him.
Upon his assumption of power after the death of his father in 2000, Bashar Asad promised an era of political openness. Syrian intellectuals and quasi-civil society groups responded by what became known as the Damascus Spring. However, their call for pluralism and political and civil rights were soon muzzled. Clearly, the Syrian regime feared on his hold to power and decided to censor all socio-political activities. Syrian activism reemerged following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Notably, the activists’ call for reform was couched in the interest of safeguarding Syria from the spillover of the profound changes sweeping Iraq and by extension the region. No calls for removing Asad or his regime were declared. No less significant, reformers of all ideological stripes and backgrounds failed to unite. In hindsight, no time period during the modern history of Syria was more opportune to pressure the regime into making significant changes than in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Washington’s relations with Damascus swiftly deteriorated once Asad opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and then sank to a dangerous low when the Syrian regime helped Jihadists cross Syria into Iraq to fight U.S. troops. Yet, Arab condemnation of U.S. invasion of Iraq to remove a Ba’thi dictator stood in sharp contrast to the deafening silence of Arab condemnation of Syrian complicity in murdering U.S. troops. This attitude prevailed in Syria until the eruption of the rebellion against the Asad regime.
Simply put, Syria, throughout most of its modern history, did not support the U.S. Even during the peace process no relational structures were considered by either country to support a warm and/or mutually beneficial strategic cooperation or alliance between the two countries. Taking all this under consideration, one cannot fail but observe that American attitudinal role in Syria has been more or less affected by the history of this conflicted and ambivalent U.S.-Syrian relationship.
Second, for a nation fighting a war on terrorism whose ideology and praxis are mostly traced to the Middle East, it is arguably hardly possible for United States to entertain a role in Syria not associated with counterterrorism. Admittedly, the Obama administration has done serious mistakes, chief among them calling on President Asad to step down and creating a red line against the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Eventually, the U.S. did not back its words with action. At the same time, the U.S. relegated the political initiative to deal with the Syrian crisis to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Whereas the first fanned the ideological and monetary support for the jihadists, the other paved for the Jihadists the route to Damascus. Yet, the U.S. has struggled to support moderate opposition groups. As it turned out, some of these groups have shifted their allegiance to al-Nusra Front or other Salafi-Jihadist groups, which are dedicated to killing Americans. In addition, can the moderate opposition be absolved of the tragedy befalling Syria? When the U.S. designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in November 2012, members of the Syrian opposition deplored the American act, asserting the indispensability of the al-Qaeda-affiliate group in fighting the Asad regime. This was a serious strategic mistake that helped further legitimize Salafi-jihadism within the Syrian revolution. Therefore, how could anyone blame the U.S. for the rise of Salafi-jihadism in Syria? Did the U.S. support, equip, train, or fund Salafi-jihadists? Did the U.S. prefer supporting Jihadists more than the moderate opposition? In fact, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE all supported various Islamists and Jihadists significantly more than the moderate opposition. No less significant, it is the Arab world, which applauded and hailed the violent and oppressive Asad regime, that supported the jihadists and helped bring Syria to its tragedy. Certainly, ISIS is the latest manifestation of an Arab world mired in deep social and political crisis.
Meanwhile, once the regime’s hold onto power had begun to teeter, despite considerable support from Iran and Hezbollah, Russia stepped in not only to save its old satellite capital but also to entrench itself in the Mediterranean basin as a bulwark against what it considers American hegemony. Strategically speaking, by helping the Syrian regime, Moscow would create in Western Syria a bastion of Iranian influence beholden to Russian power, while at the same time turning the Eastern Mediterranean into a Russian lake. No doubt, the entry of Moscow into the Syrian fay further complicated Washington’s maneuvers. Whereas Moscow came to the help of an old client, Washington has had reservations with certain predominant Salafi-jihadist group spearheading the opposition. And, if history is any guide, it is naïve to think that Russia would not pursue a Grozny-like campaign to ensure that its military involvement in Syria would not become ominously perpetual. This explains the forcible displacement of Sunnis from parts of Western Syria and the savagery with which Russia and its allies have pursued their campaign to seize full control of Aleppo.
Consequently, Washington found itself in a quandary. It ironically found itself on the same side with Russia and the Syrian regime fighting Salafi-Jihadist opposition groups while at the same time supporting the moderate opposition whose power paled in comparison to the Jihadists. Expectedly, neither the Obama Administration, Congress, nor the US public support sending troops to an unfriendly land crisscrossed by jihadists on one side, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Iraqi Mobilization units on the other. How could one expect the U.S. to attack the regime, even in a limited capacity, without potentially incurring the wrath and retaliation of its Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and Iraqi allies, all of which are really running the deadly show? Similarly, should anyone expect that Salafi-jihadists will not jump at the opportunity of Washington striking at the regime to widen their sphere of influence and in the process slaughter non-believers? Or should anyone brush aside the possibility that the Iraqi mobilization units would use their partnership with the Iraqi government to attack the approximately 6000 American soldiers advising the same government? Or should American people forget the high pitched fictitious slogan that Iraqis would welcome Americans with flowers as liberators in 2003? Certainly, the U.S. is in an unenviable position in both Syria and Iraq, where American enemies vastly outnumber American friends! Nevertheless, The U.S. has been the largest donor of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, and has sent dozens of U.S. troops to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces.
Speaking recently before the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon drew a bleak but accurate picture of the Syrian crisis: “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians…Many groups have killed innocent civilians — none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees.”
This is the tragedy of Syria and, by extension, the tragedy of the Muslim world in the Middle East. Be that as it may, the U.S. should apply its soft influence to reach a permanent cease fire and end the slaughter and displacement of Syrians. No doubt dealing with Russia is exhausting and at times unproductive. But the reality of the world today is that the U.S. cannot force a cease fire as part of a settlement on its own without introducing a massive number of troops to eventually occupy Syria. In his most recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger affirms that the main challenge for the twenty-first century is how to shape an international order in a world buffeted by violent conflicts, technological proliferation and radicalism. He adds that unless the major powers reach a new kind of accommodation about their global roles chaos would ensue. In other words, the United States would find it difficult to play the leadership role it had carried out in post-Cold War. Consequently, the United States confronts a paradox whereby it continues to be the undisputed global leader but in an often contested, sometimes uncertain global position. This is the international backdrop against which the tragedy in Syria continues to unfold.
More specifically, however, Syria as a nation is paying the deep price for the social, political and sectarian flaws in Arab society. Following the Arab defeat in 1967, the Syrian and Arab philosopher par excellence Sadek al-Azm wrote a book entitled Al-Naqd al-Thati Ba’da al-Hazima (Self-Criticism After the Defeat), in which he argued that the defeat of Arab armies was not brought about by the might of the Israeli army but rather by the flaws of Arab society. Today these flaws are deeper than ever!
Currently, the tragic reality today is that Aleppo is all but a foregone conclusion, for the city is essential to consolidate Russian-Iranian-Syrian regime control over Western Syria. It’s clear from Secretary Kerry’s statements that the U.S. will not go to war with Russia over Aleppo. But that does not mean that the U.S. and the international community should not apply significant pressure, including by proxy, on Russia and the Syrian regime to stop their indiscriminate warfare. This begs the essential question following the day after the likely fall of Aleppo: How to change the dynamics in Syria in favor of the moderate opposition without creating a bigger war and tragedy. Until a new American administration moves into the White House, this remains to be seen!
Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books including Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011); Salafism in Lebanon: Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); and The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016). The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those at FAU. Dr. Rabil can be followed @robertgrabil.
[i] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change: The White House Years 1953-1956 (New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 252.
[ii] John Foster Dulles, Economic and Military Cooperation with Nations in the General Area of the Middle East, (Washington, DC: GPO, January 1957), pp. 2-5.
[iii] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1957 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1961), pp. 816-817.
[iv] Ministere Syrienne des Affaires Etrangeres, Declaration du Gouvernment Syrien au Sujet du Projet du President Eisenhower (Damas: Bureau des Documentations Syriennes et Arabes, Janvier 10, 1957), p. 1.
[v] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1957, p.1036.
[vi] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1966 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1969), p. 525.
[vii] Ibid., pp. 530-531.
[viii] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 738.