For decades there have been many Syrian headlines analyzing the Syrian situation since the inception of the nation state. These headlines depended on the geopolitical, regional and international context. The theory of ‘the external role’ evolved and became a school of thought that depended on conspiracy theories to explain the political and economic situation of the country. This conspiracy mentality afforded local thinking, both official and popular, the kind of self-satisfaction that often relies upon renouncing any shred of responsibility. Any event, regardless of its magnitude, was blamed on the ‘external factor’ embodied in a combination of political and economic interests that view Syria as a valuable prize on multiple levels. Authoritarian regimes have often relied on the ‘foreign conspiracy’ to justify an interlocking chain of mismanagement, corruption and repression internally as well as confusion and passivity externally. Several political opposition groups have also adopted this practice and used it in their political narrative, making this practice part of an overarching culture.
In spite of this narrative, there remains the conviction that the reason behind the consolidation of the current revolution in the Syrian case depends first and foremost on the structural deficiencies of the political and economic establishment. Decades of restrictions and deprivation of the most basic rights combined with a destructive administration of the national economy has evolved into a situation today in this country which can only be explained within the frame of popular demands for freedom, dignity and justice.
Any observer of the current Syrian situation cannot follow events without their regional and international dimensions, but it is advisable to avoid adopting this conspiracy logic and exaggerating the external role. However, a grasp of the implications of the Syrian crisis and how different parties are managing it encourages one to believe that regional and international actors play an important role. So, whether they are benefiting or are being harmed by the current situation in Syria, what role do these different factions play? And how do Syrians of various political orientations deal with them?
For years, several western countries have allied themselves with authoritarian regimes under the premise of containing the religious or communist radicalization threat. This was especially evident in North Africa, helping to create a geographical and security buffer zone in the face of migration towards Europe. That is not to mention western countries’ conviction that defending the apparent stability and guarantee of security in these countries also involved protecting a primary strategic ally in the region embodied in the state of Israel. This alliance of interests lasted for a long time and then came the Arab revolutions to destabilize it, urging those who adopted this narrative to reassess and attempt to circumvent its implications. This was clearly evident in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were quickly abandoned after having long been held up as symbols of ‘moderation’ and presented as competent politicians capable of modernizing their societies and opening up to western investments.
And then came the Syrian case, where western leaders rushed to a clearer and more adamant position. A chain of statements and condemnations promptly ensued, accompanied by attempts to issue UN resolutions to help bring an end to violence. In this context, several combinations of economic sanctions were issued. Also, European countries quickly recognized the representatives of the political opposition as interlocutors. These statements did not neglect to continuously call for uniting the forces of the opposition on the one hand and demanding that these various forces issue assurances and guarantees for the Syrian minorities on the other. And through these two ‘conditions’, European countries have managed to evade responsibility for and direct attention to those issues they consider most central. With regards to uniting the opposition, history has yet to produce an example of this scenario. On the contrary, one of the main ingredients of building a democratic future depends upon the pluralism of political affiliations and analysis, with a commitment to certain common denominators that overlap under the urge of a transition from an authoritarian condition to a democratic one. As for the guarantees directed at minorities, it seems that the Syrian opposition, through its need to strengthen the concept of citizenship, may have only recently become aware that this topic may be used as an excuse by western powers as well as by some local communities that hide behind this imagined fear. And thus, several late assurances were issued, but they reflected a comprehensive national awareness lacking strength and initiative.
The two most influential, confrontational and attractive regional players are Iran and Turkey. As for Iran, its relationship with the Syrian regime, since the Shah’s fall in 1980, was nothing but a temporary marriage forced by joint interests away from any ideological understanding. Both sides are capable of severing this marriage if need be. Through its evolving relationship with Damascus, it is reasonable to say that Iran has managed to be on the shores of the Mediterranean, extending its political influence in the region both through Syria and its paternal relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah. In spite of the religious nature of the Iranian political establishment, its regional policies do not depend much on this dimension and the debate about a Shiite Crescent and religious ambitions is nothing but a partial analysis of political motivations that place more emphasis upon the imperial ambitions of the historical Persian empire as opposed to the ambitions of jurisprudential marjas in Shiia religious seminaries. Through this analysis, one can understand Iranian diplomatic attempts to establish communication with some representatives of the Syrian opposition. However, this attempt was aborted due to the strong reintroduction of the Iranian nuclear file last September, which pushed Tehran to hold onto its regional cards including the Syrian file.
Turkey, which has opened up politically, militarily and economically to Syria since the signing of the Adana agreements in 1999, feels that it has let down its guard too soon at least politically, and it soon attempted to clarify its position after earlier hesitation. The Syrian situation became a domestic case in Turkey with political, economic and military implications. The Syrians, who halted their support to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party after signing the Adana agreements, resurrected their support following Turkish condemnation of Damascus’ policies. And for the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, there has emerged an internal political split with regard to an external issue, as the representatives of the Turkish opposition parties expressed solidarity with the Syrian regime. The Syrian file soon became a useful tool for settling accounts with the Justice and Development Party. One can then understand Turkish hesitation and its lack of desire to play the role of a subcontractor in handling the Syrian crisis, let alone the role of a main contractor, which could lead to the explosion of complex loyalties that range between historical sensitivities and the complicated ethnic and sectarian composition within Turkey itself.
And if one pays attention to Moscow and its role and position on Syria, some observers are quick to believe that Russia’s support of the Syrian regime is connected to the presence of a naval base in Tartus, the existence of significant trade deals as well as the political history that brought the two capitals closer during the Cold War. However, close examination of the situation shrinks most of these pretexts. Russia has been feeling a sense of marginalization and a weakening of respect on the international front since the collapse of the USSR. Western international forces have practiced, after the end of the Cold War, a policy of cold revenge, placing Russia in an inactive position at the level of international decision-making. Several of the major agenda items (the Balkans and Iraq for instance) have been handled far away from Russia’s influence. Syria now pays the price of this Russian desire to regain control, as it seeks an acknowledgement of its international position and weight. Finally, it is reasonable to say that the masters of the Kremlin are worried about two components of the Arab revolutions in particular, which are: democracy, flagrant violations of whose basic principles are being inflicted on the suffering Russians, and political Islam, which is gaining prominence as a result of the current changes in Arab states and will ultimately affect Muslims in the Russian Federation. As a result, Russians are also not convinced about the inevitability of the Syrian Regime’s survival and are open, in their own way, to having “prosperous and meaningful” negotiations.
As for the Gulf States, they are in agreement about the Syrian question, and are contributing financially and through the media to the revolution. These states have found it suitable, for regional and local purposes, to play on the heartstrings of the Syrian protest movement, to contain the continuous ripple effects of change in the Arab world and prevent their possible impact on them. The Gulf States are capable of guiding Arab policies with an iron fist, except in the cases of Algeria and Iraq. Algeria is not comfortable with the waves of change because of the nature of its own political system, and Iraq is held hostage to its current pro-Tehran foreign policy.
Developing countries, spearheaded by Brazil, have different positions in the international forums that have been translated into a hesitation with regards to supporting the Syrian revolution. Brazil has emerged from similar authoritarian experiences and from a military rule that created the basis for corruption, which Brazil is still trying to shake off. And Brazil’s president Dilma Vana Rousseff is considered one of the main symbols of the fight-back against corruption, having engaged in her youth with all kinds of peaceful and militant struggle. Politicians in Brazil have a clear vision of the nature of the Syrian regime and the reality of the popular protest movement. This has been evident in their votes on the General Assembly decisions and human rights commissions concerning Syria. As for their position in the UN Security Council, it is tied to the heightened sensitivity associated with American policies specifically and western ones more generally, which Brazilians associate with the logic of power and direct intervention. Also, Brazil’s third world mentality as a state that has transformed to become the sixth largest world economy has pushed it to seek more influence in handing international crises. It has previously played this role in its attempt to handle the Iranian nuclear issue with Turkey, an attempt that was aborted by the United States. Brazilian politicians emphasize their conviction that with regards to Syria, a policy of ‘nonintervention’ should replace a policy of ‘indifference’ regarding what’s happening to civilians. However, it seems that the ‘indifference’ has reaped negative effects as Brazil was nowhere to be seen in the third Friends of Syria Conference in Paris, held on June 6, after it participated as a monitor in Istanbul.
Syrians didn’t protest as a result of a universal conspiracy, but they are protesting their political conditions first and their economic ones second. Syrians are fully aware that the external stances with regards to their revolution will not be the most crucial ones for them. Through their protests during this period, Syrians have proved capable of building a new awareness, using their creative energies. The external factor is important but it is not the foundation-stone. And all the regional and international attention does not indicate any real interest in backing ethical principles but simply reflects an intersection of interests. Conspiracy theory will remain alive in the imagination of Syrian officials for the time being, and one fears that it may extend itself to controlling the people’s imagination if Syrians continue to struggle alone in freedom squares without any real humanitarian support.