Syria’s Foreign Policy Principles until 2011

Like my previous post on Iran’s foreign policy principles, most of the below is taken from an earlier unfinished and unpublished article I wrote in the end of 2011.

syria

Syria and neighbouring countries on Google Maps

I. Hostility to foreign intervention

Damascus has, like Tehran, a strong hostility against foreign interference into internal affairs. Syria had been under the control of the French from 1920 to 1944. Beyond that, the creation of Israel in 1948 was seen by Syrian leadership as direct foreign intervention, since they considered Palestine to be an integral part of Syria. This fueled a desire to restore the unity of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine under the historical “Greater Syria.”[1] A more recent example of hostility toward foreign intervention were the accusations of Bashar al-Assad during the first months of the civil unrest in 2011 during which he blamed foreign conspirators for causing the unrest in Syria. He equaled these conspirators to “germs,” supposedly infecting the country with unrest so as to destabilize his regime.

II. Anti-Israel rhetoric

As a consequence of the creation of the state of Israel and the developments that followed, anti-Israel sentiments have become characteristic of Syrian foreign policy. A pivotal factor contributing to the hostility toward Israel has been its annexation of the Golan Heights in the Six Day war of 1967. Nonetheless, already under Hafez al-Assad, Syria had been willing to engage into negotiations with Israel;  though under fixed terms of negotiation — regarding the territorial losses, Hafez would not settle “for less than full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines.”[2]

With the support of Iran Syria had been using its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon to take its zone of influence directly to the borders of Israel. A practical example of the Syrian regime’s use of anti-Israel actions was their financial compensation for people who would be willing to participate in an anti-Israel demonstration earlier in 2011.[3]

Hafez al-Assad

III. Arab nationalism

Another determinant of Syria’s foreign policy over the last century has been Arab nationalism. This manifested itself in the failed attempt to unite with Egypt (1958-1961) and led to the rise of Baathism[4]. However, when President Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, Syria maintained its strong emphasis on Arab nationalism as it had done in the past; especially as it was at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. However, al-Assad’s ambitions were more realistic than those of his Ba’ath predecessors. The latter sought to create a unified Arab nation, whereas al-Assad endeavored in regaining the Golan Heights—a mountainous territory Syria lost to Israel in 1967, during the Six-Day War. Hinnebusch calls this the principle of limited goals.[5]

Throughout the decades, Syria maintained a policy of pursuing the interests, not only of the Syrians themselves, but of the Arabs states as well. However, during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Syria supported Iran, and not Arab Iraq. Be that as it may, the Syrians kept their strong emotional attachment to the Arab identity, even though the failures of unity and intimate cooperation led to a more profound Syrian identity as well.[6]

The role of pragmatism

Throughout the 1950s to the 1990s, Syria was surrounded by hostile states with significant military superiority — those being Israel and Turkey. This is one of the reasons for Hafez al-Assad pragmatic approach in attaching importance to Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism. He made alliances with Iran, signed economic agreements with the Soviet Union[7] and in 1990 supported the United States-led war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.[8] Moreover, given Syria’s weak economy, Hafez al-Assad “used external alliances to access enormous levels of external aid and loans by virtue of Syria’s front line status against Israel, largely from the USSR and Arab oil producing states, in order to fill the resultant permanent resource gap.”[9]

Furthermore, Hafez proved to be adept at using both Superpowers to his benefit at different points in time during the Cold War. On the one hand, Syria counterbalanced the US’ strong, and seemingly unconditional, support for Israel by courting with the Soviet Union. Through this close cooperation, Syria gained access to arms, necessary for its struggle against Israel. However, as it became more clear that the Soviets were on the losing side of the epic Cold War, Syria cooperated with the US in the Gulf War, preventing Saddam from hegemonic influences.[10] This shows the pragmatic approach to foreign policy by Hafez al-Assad. Illustrative of his skills in rhetoric and pragmatism is the following: “Assad had by the late 1980’s developed a weak base into a state capable of upsetting great power initiatives in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict, of intimidating the rich oil-exporting states, and of fielding a formidable military force.”[11]

Bashar al-Assad

With the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, his son Bashar took over the leadership of Syria. Surprisingly, he kept the long-serving Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, emphasising a marked continuity of foreign policy style.[12]  Nonetheless, the image of the new Syrian President was that of a moderniser, both in domestic and foreign policy. Domestically, Bashar realised Syria was in a dire economic situation and was thus set to reform the country economically and structurally.[13] In the field of foreign policy, Bashar “preferr[ed] dialogue to confrontation and deploying a conciliatory and more reasonable personal discourse.”[14] Be that as it may, due to the unfavorable development of the political situation in the region, Syria’s new regime was forced to turn to policies focusing on national security.[15] Regional issues such as the failed peace talks with Israel, the Iraq war, and the loss of influence in Lebanon all deteriorated the relative influence/strategic situation of Syria in the Middle East.

A strategically relevant state, where Western and Arab interests clash, was Lebanon. Given this relevance of Lebanon for Syrian geopolitical interests, it is necessary to further delve into this matter. Lebanon has long been considered as an integral part of Syria by the Arab nationalists, including the Baath party which came to power in 1963. Already in 1949 Syria had attempted to arouse domestic unrest there with its expansionist aspirations in mind. Since the late 1960s Damascus had provided a “steady supply of Syrian weapons and logistical support, first to Palestinian guerrillas beginning in the late 1960s, then to a Palestinian-leftist Lebanese coalition after 1973.This last bout of Syrian interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs led to the breakdown of the Lebanese state in 1975, a power vacuum which Syria’s military soon filled.”[16]

However, the 2004 elections in Lebanon no longer guaranteed Syrian interests. The Presidential election of Rafiq Hariri was a major setback for Syria. Moreover, Hariri’s assassination in 2005 forced Syria to remove all its troops from Lebanon. This marked a new era of antagonisms between the US, France and ‘moderate’ Arab states like Saudi Arabia against Syria, Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas.[17] The main considerations for Syria were preventing any existential threat to the Baath party’s rule in Damascus and securing its geopolitical interests. Until 2004, Syria’s interests in Lebanon had been warranted through Bashar’s election of the Lebanese presidential candidates. Syria continues to have strong links to Hezbollah and still plays a role in Lebanese politics. Syria had virtually controlled politics in Lebanon since 1990.

With the United States’ intervention in Iraq after its March 2003 invasion of Baghdad, there was a credible threat that the existence of the Syrian regime was at stake. In response, Damascus, instead of bending to the demands of Washington, started assisting militants with arms and allowed them to freely cross into Iraq to curb the influence the US was gaining.[18]

A very striking statement in connection to a speech of Bashar al-Assad in light of the unrest early on in 2011 was by Jordanian writer and analyst Randa Habib: “I had the feeling I was listening to his father. Nothing’s changed. It’s as if we’re in an era of 30 years ago when Israel was to blame for everything. I think these dictators in the region must go to the same school. He was arrogant, cut off from reality.”[20] Habib sees a marked continuity of anti-Israel rhetoric and using foreign intervention as condoning his use violence.

Arab Unity? — Copyright Al Jazeera

The Constitution

The Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic does not have a separate chapter on it foreign policy principles, nor specific articles referring to it. However, the preamble of the Constitution does mention these issues. It names five principles upon which the constitution is based. The principles are spelled out below and the above mentioned foreign policy principles are bolded by me for the sake of clarity.  

1) The comprehensive Arab revolution is an existing and continuing necessity to achieve the Arab nation’s aspirations for unity, freedom, and socialism. The revolution in the Syrian Arab region is part of the comprehensive Arab revolution. Its policy in all areas stems from the general strategy of the Arab revolution.

2) Under the reality of division, all the achievements by any Arab country will fail to fully achieve their scope and will remain subject to distortion and setback unless these achievements are buttressed and preserved by Arab unity. Likewise, any danger to which any Arab country may be exposed on the part of imperialism and Zionism is at the same time a danger threatening the whole Arab nation.

3) The march toward the establishment of a socialist order besides being a necessity stemming from the Arab society’s needs, is also a fundamental necessity for mobilizing the potentialities of the Arab masses in their battle with Zionism and imperialism.

4) Freedom is a sacred right and popular democracy is the ideal formulation which insures for the citizen the exercise of his freedom which makes him a dignified human being capable of giving and building, defending the homeland in which he lives, and making sacrifices for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. The homeland’s freedom can only be preserved by its free citizens. The citizen’s freedom can be completed only by his economic and social liberation. [Personal note: this is the most unlikely statement that the Constitution makes]

5) The Arab revolution movement is a fundamental part of the world liberation movement. Our Arab people’s struggle forms a part of the struggle of the peoples for their freedom, independence, and progress.

These constitutional principles put the most emphasis on Arab unity and the foreign threat of ‘imperialism’ and ‘Zionism’. One immediately recognises the striking parallels between the al-Assads’ actual approach to foreign policy and that outlined in the constitution’s preamble.

So much for the short summary of Syria’s foreign policy principles from about 1970 to 2011. I did not go into the current state of events, for I see the benefit in a historical account for the sake of understanding to present. In the case at hand it is not so much the increased understanding of current events that history might bring, but rather the ambiguity of the present that prevents me from merely speculating about what is to happen.


[1]    Raymond Hinnebusch, “The Foreign Policy of Syria,” Raymond A. Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami (eds.), The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 142-143
[2]    Ibid., 152
[3]    Ynetnews.com, June 6, 2011
[4]    Baath Party: “Arab political party advocating the formation of a single Arab socialist nation. The Baʿth Party espoused nonalignment and opposition to imperialism and colonialism, took inspiration from what it considered the positive values of Islam, and attempted to ignore or transcend class divisions. Its structure was highly centralized and authoritarian.” – Encyclopedia Britannica [online]
[5]    Hinnebusch, “The Foreign Policy of Syria,” p. 151
[6]    Ibid., p. 143
[7]    C. Ernest Dawn, “The Foreign Policy of Syria,” L. Carl Brown (ed.), Diplomacy in the Middle East, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001), p. 171
[8]    Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, “Background Note: Syria,” U.S. Department of State, (2011)
[9]    Raymond Hinnebusch, “Syrian Foreign Policy under Bashar al-Asad,” Ortadoğu Etütleri, Vol.1, No. 1 (2009), p. 10
[10]  Hinnebusch, “The Foreign Policy of Syria,” p. 153
[11]  Daniel Pipes, “Damascus Courts the West. Syrian Politics, 1989-1991, Policy Papers No. 26, (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1991), p. 12
[12]  Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria. Bashar’s Trialy by Fire (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), p. 100
[13]  Eyal Zisser, “Bashar Al-Assad: In or Out of the New World Order?,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, (2005), p. 115
[14]  Hinnebusch, “Syrian Foreign Policy under Bashar al-Asad,” p. 10
[15]  Leverett, Inheriting Syria. Bashar’s Trial by Fire, p. 101
[16]  Daniel Pipes and Ziad Abdelnour, “Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon: The U.S. Role,” Middle East Forum Report of the Lebanon Study Group, (2000)
[17]  Dawn, Diplomacy in the Middle East, p. 170
[18]  Bassel F. Salloukh, “Demystifying Syrian Foreign Policy under Bashar al-Asad,” Fred H. Lawson, Demystifying Syria, (London: SAQI, 2009), p. 165
[19]  Guardian.co.uk, June 20, 2011
[20]  Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2011
[21]  Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic
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3 thoughts on “Syria’s Foreign Policy Principles until 2011

  1. Pingback: Syrian-Iranian relations — 1979-2013 « Thinking politics

  2. Pingback: Syrian-Iranian relations — analysis through theoretical frameworks « Thinking politics

  3. Pingback: The Syrian-Iranian relations and the rationale behind it « Thinking politics

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