Syria's Foreign Policy Role in the Middle East

The Key to Peace?

As a result of its alliance with Iran and its excellent relations with both Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria has enormous potential to exert both a positive and a negative influence in the region. Ten years into his presidency, which of these two options will President Assad choose? Rainer Sollich investigates

Ten years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was named his deceased father's successor. As a result of its alliance with Iran and its excellent relations with both Hezbollah and Hamas, his country has enormous potential to exert both a positive and a negative influence in the region. Which of these two options will Assad choose in the search for peace in the region? Rainer Sollich investigates

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (photo: AP)
Key to peace or stumbling block? Many European observers feel that Syria has no interest in a new escalation in the region

​​ Generations of Middle East experts have asked themselves the same question: is Syria the key to peace in the Middle East or is it a stumbling block?

Both possibilities are closely linked. Through its relations with Iran, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and radical Hamas in Gaza, the regime in Damascus has enormous potential to influence the situation in the region – both positively and negatively.

President Bashar al-Assad has shown himself to be quite as flexible as his father, whose job he inherited on 17 July 2000.

Under his rule, Syrian state media has remained on a strictly anti-Israeli course: the unpopular neighbour is portrayed as the eternal aggressor and, in typical propaganda style, as the "Zionist entity". The streets of Damascus are full of propaganda posters showing Assad side by side with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Moreover, not only the leadership of Hamas but also a few other radical Palestinian organizations are based in the Syrian metropolis.

Interested in peace?

At the same time, Assad has repeatedly sent out signals indicating an interest in a peace settlement for the region and in improved relations with Western countries. In that way, he is different from his partners in Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, who loudly agitate for the destruction of Israel.

When Assad criticizes Israel, he tends to portray himself as a peace-loving politician who, sadly, has no like-minded Israeli counterpart.

Hafez al-Assad (photo: Wikipedia)
Like father, like son: just like his father Hafez, Bashar al-Assad has adopted a political style that can at times be very flexible

​​ Speaking to the BBC in mid-June after the Israeli Marine's deadly attack on the Gaza flotilla, Assad said: "The attack destroyed any chance for peace in the near future. Above all, it showed that this Israeli government is once again a pyromaniac government. You cannot achieve peace with such a government."

Nevertheless, Assad himself has in the past tried to do just that. Like his father before him, he agreed to indirect peace talks with Israel. These talks, which were mediated by Turkey, have been on hold since the Gaza War in 2008. Another round seems unlikely in the near future – especially in light of the currently poor relations between Turkey and Israel. Experts consider it more likely that a new war will break out in the region.

These fears are fed not only by developments in and around Gaza, tension on the border between Lebanon and Israel is also increasing. The Israeli air force regularly overflies Lebanese territory. For its part, the Hezbollah militia has built up an arsenal of an estimated 40,000 rockets since the 2006 Lebanon War with the help of Syria and Iran and in the shade of international monitors.

Moreover, the conflict surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme leads many observers in the region to believe in the prospect of an upcoming war.

No longer in the "Axis of Evil"

Many European observers believe that contrary to the popular view in Israel, Syria has no interest in a new escalation in the region. While the country was considered part of the "Axis of Evil" by former US President George W. Bush, today, Syria's leader is practically being courted by Western politicians.

A photo montage showing Bashar al-Assad flanked by Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on sale at a market (photo: Stefanie Markert/DW)
An alliance of convenience: the relationship between Syria and Hezbollah is based on common strategic interests; but were Syria to forge peace with Israel, the situation would change dramatically and quickly

​​ Indeed, Syria has a number of interests that would benefit from taking the path of peace and working together with Western states. Syria wants to reform its ailing economy and needs to rid itself of American sanctions to do so.

Above all, Syria wants to get back the Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in 1967 and which Israel later annexed. For the regime, it is a question of prestige. "No Syrian president can give up the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights are part of Syria," explains Samir al-Aita, editor-in-chief of the Arabic edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.

An alliance of convenience?

This is why German Middle East expert Volker Perthes also believes that it must be possible to ease Syria out of its one-sided clinch with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. The director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), says that Syria and Hezbollah are allies out of necessity: Syria needs Hezbollah to keep up the credibility of its threats to Israel, and Hezbollah is using Syria for financial and material support – including arms deliveries via Syrian territory.

Volker Perthes (photo: dpa)
Volker Perthes believes that it must be possible to ease Syria out of its one-sided clinch with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah

​​ "That would all change were Syria to actually sign a peace deal with Israel and regain its occupied territory," says Perthes. "That is relatively clear. And Beirut and the Hezbollah know it. Syria's relationship to Hezbollah would change because they would no longer have the same strategic interests."

But could Assad really take the risk – both in terms of domestic and foreign policy – of renouncing its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, in order to reclaim the Golan Heights and enjoy better relations with the West? Any attempts to make that happen have failed thus far.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became aware of that last February, when she asked Assad – a little too publically as it turned out – to reconsider his close strategic alliance with Iran.

"We don’t need anyone to teach us lessons about the Middle East or lecture us in our own history," Assad confidently replied. "We take care of our own affairs and look after our own interests."

At the end of the day, the question as to whether Syria is a key to peace or a stumbling block on the road there, is an open one. And Bashar al-Assad seems bent on keeping it that way.

Rainer Sollich

© Deutsche Welle 2010

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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