The Battle of Aleppo: The History of the Ongoing Siege at the Center of the Syrian Civil War (2016)
Chapter 4: Foreign Actors
At the start of the uprising, Iran was one of Assad’s staunchest allies, a relationship that has continued to this day. For Tehran, Syria is a core component of its “Axis of Resistance”, which refers to an Iran-led alliance of both state and non-state actors, primarily but not exclusively Shia, whose goal is resistance against Israel and Western interests in the region. For Syria, its relationship with these two parties cannot be seen only through the lens of religion, particularly given the secular nature of the Ba’ath Party and the questionable link made between Alawis and Twelver Shiism. This alliance must also be seen in terms of its strategic benefit, including due to the shared aim of fighting Israel, which occupied and then annexed part of the Golan Heights on the Syrian border after the 1967 war.
The importance of Syria to Iran also cannot be overstated: It acts as the conduit for Iranian support to Hezbollah, in terms of arms, money, and equipment. Syria has also housed Hezbollah training camps. The collapse of the Assad regime would, therefore, make Iran’s support to Hezbollah significantly more difficult to maintain and more easily exposed to interception. As a result, when the uprising broke out and even prior to the devolution into armed conflict, Iran and Hezbollah offered both physical and rhetorical support to Assad.
At the time of the Arab Spring, Turkish leaders in Ankara were pursuing a foreign policy known as “zero problems with neighbors”, the brainchild of then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. This philosophy is exactly as its name describes: The goal was to develop and maintain good relations with all nations, particularly those in its neighborhood, relying on soft power that would allow Turkey to mediate between conflicting parties and emerge as an important—nay, essential—regional and international player. Thus, 2007 witnessed a bilateral free trade agreement and, two years later, visa free movement between their populations. By 2010, Syria’s exports to Turkey rose from 187 million U.S.D in 2006 to 662 million in 2010; Turkey’s exports to Syria saw a similar rise during the same period, from 609 million U.S.D to 1.85 billion. Turkey’s then Prime Minister (and current President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan also mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria in 2008, which, although ultimately failing, enhanced the image of Ankara as a go-between. Although this foreign policy and Turkey’s position in the regional and international arena would substantially evolve over time, it is important to understand that, prior to the Syrian uprising, relations between the two were good and, at the start of the uprising, Ankara saw itself in the role of mediator.
Russia had (and has) military, economic, and strategic interests in preserving its relationship with Syria as headed by the Assad government. Notably, it maintains a permanent naval base at Tartus, which is Russia’s only base in the Mediterranean. The loss of Tartus would be detrimental not only to its position in the region, but also to Moscow’s long term interest in acting as a counter to the West. Economically, Damascus has been a main buyer for Russian arms since the Soviet period. Between 2007 and 2011, 78 percent of Syria’s weapons imports came from Russia; in 2011, total sales reached one billion U.S.D. That year, there were also an estimated 100,000 Russian citizens living in Syria, with Russian companies reportedly investing 20 billion U.S.D in Syria beginning in 2009. These interests would define Russia’s position vis-à-vis Syria from the start of the uprising to present day.
If Bashar’s reign as Syrian president began with difficulty because of the socio-economic situation inside Syria, events outside his country would make his rule even more difficult. On Bashar’s 36th birthday, September 11, 2001, the United States was hit with the most devastating terrorist attacks in its history. Americans were angry and wanted retribution and justice for the lost lives of their countrymen, and President George W. Bush vowed to do everything in his power to destroy and/or capture those who were responsible, which included Osama bin-Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Bush also included Syria as a member of the “Axis of Evil”. Initially, Bashar attempted to use the United States’ misfortune and anger to his advantage by cooperating with U.S. intelligence and giving them information on al-Qaeda, but as Zisser notes, this may have been done more because he feared another Islamic insurgency in Syria like that which his father faced 20 years earlier (Zisser 2007, 136). It has also been suggested that Assad was not as forthcoming about information on al-Qaeda as the Americans would have liked, which suggests that he was simply continuing his father’s geopolitical legacy of playing both sides in struggles between the Western and Islamic worlds (Zisser 2007, 132).
Regardless of Assad’s motives, U.S.-Syrian relations briefly experienced a détente after the 9-11 attacks, but this was dashed when the American “War on Terror” expanded to target neighboring Middle Eastern dictatorships. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an event that hurt Syria’s economy and placed Bashar in the crosshairs of many American politicians. As noted earlier, Syria had supported the Shiite Persian Iranians in their war against the Sunni Arab Saddam Hussein regime in the 1980s, but after the Iran-Iraq War and the Cold War ended, alliances shifted and old enemies became new friends. Syria and Iraq normalized relations in 1997, and shortly thereafter the two nations began an economic policy through which Syria received cheap oil from their petroleum rich neighbor (Zisser 2007, 133). The U.S. invasion of Iraq not only stopped the flow of that cheap oil into Syria but also conceivably placed Assad into the same category as Saddam Hussein as a Cold War relic whose time had passed. Because of this, Bashar continued to support Hussein until he was captured, which further angered President Bush and several other American lawmakers (Zisser 2007, 127). After Hussein was captured and later executed, thousands of American soldiers began to occupy the Syrian-Iraqi border, which prompted Assad to make conciliatory gestures towards his political opponents in Syria. Assad’s olive branch - whether real or just for show - was soundly rejected by most Syrians, who largely viewed it as an acquiescence towards growing American power in the region (Zisser 2007, 95). Furthermore, it escaped nobody’s notice that throughout the war in Iraq, Islamic jihadists were flooding across Syria’s border with Iraq and joining the battle to fight American and other Western soldiers occupying the country and attempting to rebuild it.
Despite the position that the 9-11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq put Bashar in, he survived the first few years of his reign, and considering the political and cultural milieu he lived in, those years could be considered personally successful. However, pride comes before the fall, and Bashar’s hubris soon put him on the path to where he finds himself today. When Bashar was re-elected to another seven year term through another dubious referendum, his self-satisfaction (or arrogance) was noticed by his biographer, respected journalist David Lesch (Lesch 2012, 31). Perhaps Assad felt more secure in his position as the American threat on his Iraqi border had dissipated by then; war-weary Americans who had tired of seeing many of their countrymen come home hurt or dead gave control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term elections. President Bush no longer had the political authority or the support of the American people to target other Middle Eastern countries.
All the while, the Bush administration distrusted Assad, and by the end of Bush’s second term, the U.S. had no ambassador to Syria. As Bush put it in 2007, “My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago. The reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon.” This was no doubt a reference to Syria’s continued meddling in Lebanon, particularly its connections with Hezbollah. In the summer of 2006, the Shiite militia, based in southern Lebanon, began firing rockets at Israel and conducted a surprise cross-border raid that killed several Israeli soldiers. Israeli troops rushed into southern Lebanon in the hopes of destroying Hezbollah, and the war in Lebanon lasted nearly 2 months, but Israel was unable to destroy Hezbollah, which managed to fire thousands of rockets indiscriminately into Israel the whole time. This forced Israelis in the north to all but live in bunkers during the war. The United Nations eventually brokered a ceasefire that called for stationing U.N. forces on the border to stand between Israel and Hezbollah, while also forbidding the shipment of weaponry from Iran and Syria into Lebanon. But the fighting indicated the extent to which Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and Syria were now all connected, posing grave security threats to Western interests. Despite the fact Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the very group Hafez cracked down on decades earlier, the geopolitical situation has made for strange bedfellows.
As part of his administration’s efforts to reverse Bush’s foreign policy, President Obama hoped to normalize relations with America’s traditional Middle Eastern adversaries and engage with them. A new ambassador was appointed to Syria, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said of Assad, “There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” However, any pretense of Assad being a reformer disappeared quickly when the protests started.