J.K. Gani’s “The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations” — Reviewed by Julio Rivera

Julio Rivera - University of Chicagoby 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.

JK Gani, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations, Conflict and Cooperation - book cover

Author: J.K. Gani (Lecturer in IR at the University of St. Andrews, UK)
Series: Middle East Today
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (October 2, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1137358343
ISBN-13: 978-1137358349

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.

Comments (27)

Jasmine said:

One would be deceiving itself if for one instant believed that USA politics have an ideology with any nation,let alone with an under developed one in the Middle East,it is all about interest and controlling resources and confronting the communists.

Syria has no history in democracy but Syrians were subjected to many years of colonisation which helped to emphasise their national identity,Syria was subjected to violence by an aggressive neighbour( Israel ) which creates the drive for preserving the sense of Arabism.
The influence of the Eastern block in Syria was out of necessity to acquire arms from the communist Russia and Shiite Irans,and interest was the key player.

There were no room for an ideology to emerge with its relation with USA when Syrians were inhibited from outside and inside,Syrians were and still trying to hold their heads above water,and it comes as no surprise that the country has implode and explode at the same time.

USA is helping Syria now to fight ISIS by default and an equal relation would never be established if Israel doesn’t respect the right of Palestinians and eliminate the danger of invading the Syrian and Lebanese territory and stop violating the Syrian sky.

February 8th, 2015, 12:18 pm


ghufran said:

First it was Israel and now it is Israel and Iran. For the US and Syria to have normal relations a deal with Iran has to be reached and some sort of a settlement between Israel and Palestinians needs to be implemented, as you can see that is easier said than done, therefore do not wait for any breakthrough any time soon.

February 8th, 2015, 12:24 pm


ALAN said:

The United States are governed by the criminals, which are the great misfortune has befallen on the Arab nation
Americans warmongers: Damns for seven generations on the warlords in America for all the tragedies in the Arab region
Woe to you from the punishment of God

February 8th, 2015, 5:06 pm


Uzair8 said:

Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi@Shaykhabulhuda ·Jan 31
We call Syrians to rebel against ISIS and not to be lured by their claims of following Islam. Islam is not this; victory is imminent.


February 8th, 2015, 6:09 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Shirley, you must be joking NewZ

For the US and Syria to have normal relations a deal with Iran has to be reached and some sort of a settlement between Israel and Palestinians needs to be implemented…


Can you explain to all the smart people here, how “….a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians….” is going to help relations between “the US and Syria”?

February 8th, 2015, 10:40 pm


Syrialover said:

Dear MATTHEW BARBER, I have some comments on your post prior to this thread, about the savagery of ISIS and whether vengeance is the right response.

1. One of the sharpest and most powerful insights into the psychological workings of ISIS can be found in a recent BBC interview with former jihadi Aimen Dean from Saudi Arabia.

“Islamic State: Brutality and Bureaucracy” – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gd2wj

For anyone who hasn’t heard it, it’s also important listening for his comments on the “prophet-driven” significance of Syria to ISIS. He also explains the critical importance of attacking their belief systems, not just physically attacking them.

2. On whether one should watch images of brutality such as the death of hostages, my answer is no.

I believe that this disrespects and further dehumanizes the victims. It also deepens the shock and grief of those who knew and loved them to know the world is viewing and remembering them like that.

And because of the above and other psychological reasons, it debases something within ourselves to choose to witness these acts.

A few months ago I repeatedly protested here, making these same points, against the bizarrely supersized images of dead jihadis posted in Syriacomment lead articles by ISIS-watcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimiby (who I read somewhere was 21 years old, which possibly explains it).

February 9th, 2015, 4:04 pm


Uzair8 said:

Posted on Iran Military forum (IMF) yesterday (8th Feb):

“ISIS retreats from Aleppo and their territory is taken by F$A.
incompetence of SAA and Syrian state has no limits it seems.”

Followed by this response:

“Expect the SAA to f*ck up many times before they get anything right.. The problem, I strongly believe, is to do with the command structure.. They’re still using old Soviet military doctrine for 21st century 3rd generation warfare…”


February 9th, 2015, 5:48 pm


Syrialover said:


Your statement should be in text books as an example of the strange thinking that gives the Assad regime a free pass with glowing stars on it.

Are we to believe that Syria has been handed over to Iran by weak, cowardly traitor Bashar Assad just because of Israel? And that Syrians as a people have been kept from constructive wider interaction with the world instead of second-rating it with Russia and Iran “out of necessity”?

Why not just tell the truth and state WHY “There were no room for an ideology to emerge with its relation with USA when Syrians were inhibited from outside and inside,Syrians were and still trying to hold their heads above water,and it comes as no surprise that the country has implode and explode at the same time.”

Instead of the nonsensical statement: “Syrians [were]inhibited from outside…”,it would be more accurate to put the full-strength blame for what has happened to Syrians on the thug dictatorship of the Assad regime (father and son).

It’s always frustrating to see honest thinking on this blocked by a rush to the head of conspiracy theory-think.

February 9th, 2015, 6:24 pm


Syrialover said:

ALAN #3, you got it wrong and mixed up yet again when you said, “The “United States are governed by the criminals, which are the great misfortune has befallen on the Arab nation.” And Syria and the regime’s sponsors Iran and Russia are NOT governed by criminals?.

I recommend a nice sleep, something nourishing to eat then sitting down with a clear head.

February 9th, 2015, 6:33 pm


Ghufran said:

Oppresive regimes need a conflict and an enemy or enemies to thrive, expect opposition to any deal with Iran from the people who are afraid to look in the mirror and face the truth.

February 9th, 2015, 11:12 pm


Jasmine said:

Syria lover @9
Your anger surfaces when the blame is not fully directed to Assad,and you have chosen a part of my post Just to criticise my way of thinking.
Do you honestly believe that USA politics is led by ideology?
You don’t think that having a continuous war with a neighbour can drain your resources?

February 10th, 2015, 1:24 am


Akbar Palace said:

Deaf, Dumb & Blind


Your hero Assad ruined his own country. If you want to blame someone, blame the self-appointed leader of your doomed country.

He has the gall point fingers. He had the chance to make a peace treaty with the Zionists, he had the chance to go with the West instead of Iran, and he had the chance to bring democracy instead of shooting unarmed protesters.

But no, that was not enough. He wanted to be President-for-Life, and now you have a worm sitting on a toilet he now calls a throne that no one listens to him except the BBC.

February 10th, 2015, 7:11 am


Jasmine said:

Frustrated , helpless ,angry and very rude.
Why would like to start another war in the south of Syria?
Didn’t you get the message from Nasrallah ?

February 10th, 2015, 8:33 am


Akbar Palace said:


Why are you talking about war? Hasn’t Assad provided enough violence for you? Israel is are more than willing to watch muslim jihadists and despots play their games to the tune of 210,000 dead.

If Assad’s Hezbo and Iranian protectors want to veer from their original goal of destroying Syria and instead pin-prick Israel, they will be met with whatever it takes. Israel knows where your “democracy” sleeps at night.

And by all means, keep up the excuse-making, the bluster and the finger-pointing. It only keeps these fifedoms in the Dark Ages. I would at least recommend paying for attention to Syrialover. He’s on the right track.

February 10th, 2015, 8:55 am


Jasmine said:

Threatening,insecure and confrontational .
Bibi is wetting his pants and he is smart enough not to challenge Nasrallah ,he is now playing a very dirty game by using Jordan to do the fight for him on the pretext of fighting ISIS while he is looking after Jabhat alnasrah.
If I was living in Israel,I would pack and leave to Florida.

February 10th, 2015, 11:54 am


ALAN said:

Thank you for your recommendation a nice sleep, I’ll try to do it every day.
Ask you to tell me please about the adequacy of those deployed charities across the globe for delivering the good of the whole Nations. http://i243.photobucket.com/albums/ff246/chagataev/72985.jpg

February 10th, 2015, 5:17 pm


Akbar Palace said:

If I was living in Israel,I would pack and leave to Florida.


Thanks for advice, but if you weren’t so delusional, you would realize that it is the arabs or more accurately Syrians who have been displaced and have had to “pack and leave”, making the Palestinian Nakba look like child’s play.

Meanwhile Israel’s population is increasing.

Enjoy your trip to Florida;)

February 10th, 2015, 10:10 pm


Jasmine said:

Israel’s population is increasing.

I don’t think so,that is why Bibi was asking the french to immigrate to Israel in his recent visit to France,this is a desperate act.
Thanks to your friends in the west We have now three millions refugees outside Syria.
The Syrian Army are cleaning the south from the militants,and in time we will get the golan heights back.
I still believe that Florida is a very nice place to immigrate to.

February 11th, 2015, 12:51 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Jasmin is locked inside her brain. Can someone provide a key? NewZ

Israel’s population is increasing. I don’t think so…


Your opinion, and what you “think” has nothing to do with fact. Again, you need to focus less on your object of “fascination”, Israel, and perhaps be concerned more for your own people.

Don’t you think?

Bibi and the GOI are always ready to help jews who are in distress around the world, that is why Israel took in so many Russian and Ethiopian jews, and will continue to take in more, even those in France who feel they have no future there.


Thanks to your friends in the west We have now three millions refugees outside Syria.

Again, I see you can’t bring yourself to blame the actual perpetrators of the violence in Syria: muslims and arabs. No further comment. You are a wonderful example of why the ME is so backward.

February 11th, 2015, 3:05 pm


Jasmine said:

Israel is the cause of the carnage in the ME and you know it so well.
You can’t create a nation in a country with the only shared element “Judaism”
You will end up with an apartheid state full of the god chosen people.
No further comment and you are a typical aggressor who enjoys the suffering of Arabs.

February 12th, 2015, 1:08 am


Akbar Palace said:

Jasmine’s “Israel Comment” Website

Israel is the cause of the carnage in the ME and you know it so well.


I understand many people feel like you, but it is DELUSIONAL.

If you or I take a gun and kill someone, cut of his/her head, or light him on fire, WE are the guilty party, not Israel, not jews, and not the USA. You have stepped into a hole of blame that will prevent you and others from moving on. The Palestinians are in that hole, and they are slowing coming out of it. Slowly.

You can’t create a nation in a country with the only shared element “Judaism”. You will end up with an apartheid state full of the god chosen people.

Oy. The state is a fact. It has been created. You can pretend it isn’t, yet you and the “resistance” crowd expend waaay too much energy on this little “non-existent” state. Odd.

The jewish people are a “people”, like the Italian people, Chinese people and the Iranian people. No one cares if you are practicing the religion or not. Everyone has the ability to identify how you want. Israel is 75% jewish. Many identify more as being Israeli than jewish, including muslim and christian Israelis, and there is complete freedom of religion. When and if the population becomes a jewish minority, the nature of the state may change. Nothing is forever.

There are muslim states and christian states, so this concept wouldn’t be anything new, except that religious law is not used in Israel. There is freedom of speech, which is something that has eluded most arab and muslim countries, and free elections.

Fix your house Jasmine, then you can suggest fixing ours.


February 12th, 2015, 7:39 am


Jasmine said:

I have reached a dead end in discussion with you if you believe that states are defined by religion,does this means that atheist should not belong to any country and should be denied nationality.
Sixty six years passed and some Jewish are trying hard to establish a state and with no avail,I feel sorry about the next generations in Israel ,why do they have to pay the price of the mistakes of their ancestor ,Jewish are living every where in the world and living peacefully,why do they have to use the holocaust as an excuse to invade another country and claim it because long long time ago they were majority in that land and therefore should have it back.

What would you call the Syrian Christians if they decide to declare Syria a Christian country because long long time ago,they were the majority, and ask all the rest of people from different religions to evaporate?
If you really believe that Israel is a state,shouldn’t you be living there and help?

February 12th, 2015, 8:34 am


Akbar Palace said:

Facts, not Delusion

I have reached a dead end in discussion with you if you believe that states are defined by religion…

The numerous countries around the world that have an “official” religion:

PS – Israel is NOT one of them…


February 12th, 2015, 10:14 am


Jasmine said:

Why you are playing ignoramus?
You can’t have a state based on religious believes.

But an existing state can always choose a religion if the majority of its inhabitants prefer that,even if I think that it is wrong .

February 12th, 2015, 11:39 am


Akbar Palace said:

You can’t have a state based on religious believes.

Wake up Jasmine!

There are oodles of states “based on religious beliefs”. Sharia law, is, by definition, the application of religious beliefs on the citizenry.

Which country do you live in? Does the vice police make you wear a burqa? Is your testimony in court equal to that of a man? There are several countries “based on religious beliefs” that directly affect how you and the citizens there live and breathe.



But an existing state can always choose a religion if the majority of its inhabitants prefer that,even if I think that it is wrong.

Majority? LOL. In the Gulf states, the “majority” is made up of non-citizens or women, both who are not afforded the right to vote.


C’mon Jasmine, let’s get off the sharia law discussion and get back to how bad Israel is…

February 12th, 2015, 2:30 pm


Jasmine said:

Congratulations to you and your new founded state,if your examples and guidance are those medieval states which are guided by sharia law,this is an admittance of failure in establishing the basic elements for a 21 century state.
Unbelievable logic.
Have a nice life.

February 12th, 2015, 10:27 pm


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