Sunday, December 20, 2009

Harriri in Damascus.. Should not Surprise US

If 2009 was a good year for president Bashar al-Assad, Saad Harriri’s visit to Damascus on Sat. Dec 19th must have topped the Syrian cake with a big cherry. This visit by the Lebanese head of government to Damascus coincides with Lebanese President Suleiman’s visit to Washington. President Suleiman has a tough sales pitch for President Obama on Mon Dec 21st, he wants the U.S. to provide military aid to the Lebanese army and to nullify 1559 UN resolution sighting that Hezbollah arms issue is to be discussed only within a national forum, and please take note President Obama: everything is cool with Syria.

The fast track improvement in the Syrian Lebanese relations started with the end of summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel’s military objectives did not materialize; Hezbollah declared a victory. Consequently, Hezbollah’s political agenda was handed a much needed boost after winning 35 seats in the May 2005 elections. The inherent weaknesses of the Seniora government started to unfold in 2007 and 2008 ending with a siege on the Lebanese Parliament staged by Hezbollah coalition supporters. This troubled period ended when the Doha Agreement in May 2008 handed the Hezbollah coalition a number of concessions changing the parliament configuration from 50+1 to a third and two thirds. Furthermore, the Doha agreement handed Hezbollah coalition a veto over every government decision.

From the Syrian perspective, having friendly Lebanese officials in office is a matter of security and stability in the region President Suleiman made a visit to Damascus this past month after a number of Lebanese officials made the same trip in hopes of paving the way for normalized relations. One contentious element remained, and Harriri’s visit to Damascus yesterday marked the quintessential tipping point. In all, one can clearly see in this past year that Syrian preference dictated how and when this bilateral relation should proceed.

In contrast to what some observers would like to project on the dynamics of the region, the Syrian Lebanese relations are not tied to the equation of Syrian military presence, but are rather subject to the equation of a big authoritative, consolidated state and the factional interests of a small state suffering from identity crises. The Lebanese cannot escape geopolitics, a reality that is understood by the Christian Lebanese partners of Hezbollah and its prominent Maronite, General Aoun. It is refreshing to see that Sunni Lebanese are getting the message as well.

One hopes that this visit is indeed a step forward in the stability and prosperity of Lebanon.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Price of Not Making Peace: Israel is loosing its Appeal

Syria substituted the Israeli gateway to better relations with the U.S., by improving Syria's relations with pro U.S. countries like the EU, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in 2009. Meanwhile, the Syrians have left the door open for further unofficial peace negotiations with Israel, while responding to Israeli military preparations with a joint defense strategy with Iran.

Luring Syria away from Iran is highly unlikely with shy friendly nudges from the U.S. every now and then and without concrete advancements on the Syrian Israeli peace track. Advancements that are hard to commit to by the Israeli side since they involve the occupied Golan Heights.

Not committing to a comprehensive peace with its Arab neighbors, Israel is loosing its high tech edge to China, India, Turkey, EU who are increasing the number of trade agreements with Arab countries. The economic losses for Israel resulting from forgone high tech contracts could easily amount to a considerable sum, not to mention agricultural and low grade industry trade. Israeli high tech comparative advantage will slowly diminish not because Arab countries will catch up to Israel’s technological level but because there are numerous and ever increasing providers for high tech trade deals.

The liability of Israel threatening military strikes every now and then is burdening the leverage of U.S. diplomats who are involved in Mideast peace tracks. Furthermore the impact of such threats ( a trend since 2006) amounts to temporal political pressure which will detract from the good will established in prior unofficial peace talks in recent month.

Not committing to Peace has a high price

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Discontent and Iranian National Interests

We, in the US, were finally able to see and hear the much talked about disenchanted ME youth. The Iranian democratic electoral system, at least in ME standards, provided an outlet for Iranians to express their political preferences, yet it was not equipped to handle a wide perception of vote fraud. The youth in Iran clearly perceive themselves as disconnected from the current Iranian power configuration between the supreme leaders and elected officials. Their frustrations about the election results where less associated with love and loyalty to Mosavi, who is not necessarily known for his progressive reform agenda, and more with a frustration of Iran being associated with hardliners like Ahmadinajad.

My personal feeling having read and watched news coverage is somehow mixed. On one hand the passionate Iranian demonstration express a joined feeling that is all too real in the ME, and particularly real in Iran where democratic practises have a long tradition. Yet the region, including Israel, has seen a turn to the right. In the case of Iran it would be a continuation of a turn to the right. Nationalism and national interests are playing an ever increasing role in ME domestic politics. Did the Iranian people realize their national interest in owning Nuclear capabilities which would make them a regional power, much to the dismay of the region, US and EU, and have voted accordingly?

All signs point that this is what happened.

I believe that the Iranian liberal intelligentsia and youth have their work cut out for them. It will be an uphill battle to argue the case that Ahmadinajad's agenda, gamble in my opinion, is not in Iran's long-term interest.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Rule of Law as a Stability Facilitator in Syria

I. Introduction
II. The Rule of Law and Rechtstaat: Definitions and Implications
III. Middle Eastern Colonial Legacies with Respect to Judicial Institutions
IV. The Role of Executive Power and Syria’s Judicial System
V. The Rule of Law and Stability: Beyond Equality in the Eyes of the Law
VI. Conclusion

I Introduction:
The success of authoritarianism in the Middle East (ME), dating back to the 1960s for most Arab countries, has been a topic of research in comparative political studies. A number of domestic variables have been sighted as main factors engraining the persistence of authoritarianism in the ME. Among those studied domestic factors are: cultural and socioeconomic developments, state coercion, and oil rents. The constant intervention of international powers and interests expanded possible explanations as to why authoritarianism persisted even during the 1990s, a decade of economic liberalization for Arab countries. International factors are summarized by western disapproval of turning over executive power in Arab states, through the democratic process, to possibly hostile parties opposed to their interests.

Promoting aspects of Democracy by western organizations however (such as The Rule of Law) in the Arab world has been largely based on assumptions of strictly domestic failures in recognizing socioeconomic and political equity in the Rule of Law (ROL). This explains the tremendous efforts of NGOs and intergovernmental programs towards educating citizenry in the Arab world in participatory venues, legal activism, and grounding indigenous support for civil society. According to Eva Bellin, the robustness of authoritarianism in the ME has less to do with the lack of democratic prerequisites in Arab society and more to do with internationally supported coercive apparatuses[1]. Hence, civil society is growing; labor unions are forming as empty shells in most instances or are corporatized by the state. This approach of NGOs has yet to bare fruit.

Social ideals such as a bottom-up approaches to social equality and autonomous judiciary systems in the ME are an elusive experience. Colonial legacies coupled with Western strategic interests in the region, in addition to apprehensive cultural and ideological tendencies, slow the comprehensive grassroots adaptation of what the Rule of Law is designed to represent in social development. Yet the need to adhere to the Rule of Law is greater than ever in order to keep Arab states, artificial entities in most instances, intact in addition to dampening ethnic and religious crises stirred up by lingering injustices. Enacting the ROL is necessary for Arab states beyond matters of justice; it is becoming a matter of survival of the state. Power concentration’s resistance to equality and separation of powers can be softened by a different introduction to the ROL.

This paper aspires to create the political will to enforce the Rule of Law within an authoritarian context. The Rule of Law can be introduced not as a power reducer but as a stabilizer, which in the short run can support regime continuation and allow for a possibly smoother and more stable transition to equitable forms of governance.

This paper attempts to explore an unconventional approach to promoting the Rule of Law in Arab countries, taking Syria as a case study. This paper endeavors to cross into a realm of introducing the stability enhancing feature of Rule of Law to the power elite. This is an oxymoron and an approach that defies conventional wisdom for a region that refused to conform to European based understanding of political development. This approach will be based on the calculated trade off between descending towards civil war and possible federalization along ethnic or religious lines versus an adherence to the Rule of Law that would minimize legal and socioeconomic grievances, a prompter of civil strife.

By starting with various definitions of the Rule of Law, a selective process focuses on the constitutional and judicial system in Syria and how one can employ certain definitions of the ROL to operate in concert with existing legal configurations in the Syrian judicial system. Social, political and economic implications of Rechtstaat will serve as a contrast against which possible improvements in the ROL will be compared. Colonial legacies will further illuminate how the prevailing law system in Syria effected the formation of viable legal associations and legal activism. The Duality of Civil Law and Shari’a Law in the Syrian judicial system is further examined as the designated standard barrier of the ROL in Syria.

The role of executive power is examined by the ways in which diverse ethnic and religious groups’ relate to the judicial system and how they delegate their grievances to the court system in theory and in practice. The shortfall of the judicial system to live up to its standards is taken as a social and political destabilizer, an imminent threat that slowly but surely will fuel social and political unrest if ignored, hence a threat to the ruling class and to the state as a unit.

Incorporating a mechanism of a strict adherence to the Rule of Law in the existing Syrian judicial system is argued to be a momentous interest of the Syrian power elite. Not only will a national adherence to the ROL enhance stability within a diverse social context[2] but it will also guarantee regime continuation, at least in the short run. International and domestic pressure for political and economic reform can be channeled and fine tuned in accordance with the Syrian constitutional and legal system, thereby easing the unavoidable push for reform in a stable and socially acceptable environment. This will also enhance the stance of the Syrian government internationally. Expanding the power of the judicial system and the legal profession in Syria will curb executive intrusion on the progression of an effective civil society. A controlled expansion of the margins of freedom and equality before the law within the Syrian society, as expressed by this paper, is a unifying and stabilizing factor of tremendous interest to the ruling elite.

II The Rule of Law and Rechtstaat: Definitions and Implications

The Rule of Law concept has its roots in Plato’s and Aristotle’s writings, both asserting that “law should govern”. Enacting the ROL through an institutional mechanism that would limit arbitrary excursions of power by the government was articulated before the twelfth century by Islamic jurists[3] and again in 1215 AD by King John’s signature on the Magna Carta. Habeas corpus was first used in England as a writ in 1305 against unlawful detention. What firmly established the ROL in England were the English Petition of Grievances in 1610 and the English Bill of Rights in 1689. Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex in 1644 and John Locke in Treaties of Governments in 1690 cast further developments on the concept within a theoretical framework. Thomas Paine in Common Sense in 1776 declared “in free countries, the law ought to be king”.

As noted by Thomas Carothers[4], ends-based definitions of the rule of law list at least five different goals:
· Making the state abide by the law
· Ensuring equality before the law
· Supplying law and order
· Providing efficient and impartial justice
· Upholding human rights
Since each end goal addresses a different cultural and political issue, this paper will address the goals that are closely linked with the constitutional and judiciary system of the state, namely:
· Ensuring equality before the law
· Providing efficient and impartial justice
· Making the state abide by the law, in other words, limiting the government’s arbitrary power

The Rule of Law if distinguished by the aforementioned trio, will ensure the ultimate distinction between the state and the executive. If the state is identified with its constitution and legal system, the executive cannot be the state nor can any other official or apparatus. The state in this case can be truly above all. Furthermore, the integrity of the legal system and judiciary institutions becomes synonymous with the integrity of the state. Any erosion or undermining of the state’s legal system becomes a matter of undermining the state as a whole. The power elite must configure a political position for itself that does not coincide with undermining the integrity of the state.

The following will take each part of the ROL’s goals and specify its implications for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society like the one present in Syria. In summary, Syria’s society is comprised of Arabs 90.3% and Kurds, Armenians and others comprise 9.7%. Sunni Muslims account for 73% Alawit and Druze make up16%, Christians (various dominations) are 10%, and Jews have tiny communities in Damascus, Alqamishli and Aleppo[5].

Ensuring Equality Before the Law

This goal ensures that each citizen, no matter how rich, how powerful or how well connected he/she is, is treated equivalent to every other citizen before the law. In other words the law applies equally to all. This provides the important notion of predictability. Equality before the law requires a strong independent court system that is able and willing to enforce the law equally and universally.

This goal of the ROL is of special importance to minorities, both ethnic and religious. Equal citizenship extended to the Arabs and Kurds alike, and to different religious dominations, must be guaranteed by the Syrian government. No equality before the law carries clout if this preliminary right is not guaranteed. As an example, Syria deprived some 300,000 Kurds of citizenship, birth certificates, and passports, thereby disqualifying them from owning property or business ventures, voting rights, and public sector employment. In addition, they could not travel outside of Syria, and those who left could not reenter[6].

Compounding economic neglect upon unequal citizenry will leave the Kurdish area in the Hassakah region (north east of Syria) vulnerable to contention and possible illegal corroboration with outside sympathizers. Unequal citizenship burdens the Kurds’ trust in the legal system even further. If social, economic and political grievances do not find an accommodating outlet in the judicial system, one can easily predict disloyalty to the state and hence the creation of a destabilizing factor. The recent enacted laws by the Turkish government, settling some of the grievances experienced by the Turkish Kurds[7], serve as a helpful guide to the Syrian judicial system in order to configure an equal acceptance of the Kurdish ethnicity into the Syrian social fabric.

Equality before the law must be understood with the assumption that what constitutes justice and fairness, both implied by equality before the law, are solely understood within a country-specific context. What matters here are the indigenous norms of justice, not international ideals, taking into account that such norms are influenced by a multitude of factors and thereby subject to a non-static process whereby society experiences an inherently indigenous progress towards greater levels of justice.

The state’s legal system and the continually discovered higher grounds of justice by the society must move in concert with a reasonable level of congruency[8].
This notion is supported by the underlying principles of the Syrian Law of Personal Statues, which is based on Takhayyor, principles most suited for changing social conditions[9]. There is also ample constitutional ground for enforcing equality before the Law. Part 4, Article 25 on (Personal Freedom, Dignity and Equality) states:
(1) Freedom is a sacred right. The state protects the personal freedom of the citizens and safeguards their dignity and security.
(2) The supremacy of law is a fundamental principle in the society and the state.(3) The citizens are equal before the law in their rights and duties.(4) The state insures the principle of equal opportunities for citizens.
Furthermore, Chapter 3, part 1, Articles 131, 132, and 133 of the Syrian Constitution, provide the legal groundwork for an independent judiciary system and for independent judges,[10] a necessary legal framework for outlawing intrusion on the integrity of the court and institutionalizing independent rulings.

Providing Efficient and Impartial Justice

Guaranteeing efficiency by the Rule of Law is emphasized to avoid delaying cases in order to extort bribes from those who are in most need of a decision. Justice delayed is justice denied” is a famous aphorism attributed to Gladstone. Further into the argument, this paper will highlight an inherent deficiency in the civil law[11] proceedings, which not only contribute to “delaying justice” but also produce a legal community that is not up to par with its supposed role of countering a concentration of power in the hands of the central state and the executives (Jackson 1982; Schraeder 2000).

Providing efficiency and impartial justice requires an efficient bureaucracy that has an independent identity and is not plagued by patrimonialism (Brownlee 2002)[12]. Otherwise a weak legal system is an impediment to use courts as a non-violent solution to conflict and as an arbiter of disputes[13]. Syria, with its multiethnic and multi-religious concentrations cannot afford to delay or bypass the delivery of efficient and impartial justice or to continue with the emergency laws that have crippled justice in many cases.. Calming and rectifying the internal front through an efficient and independent legal system, a notion supported by the Syrian Constitution, is a nationalistic priority.

The groundwork for impartial justice is already present in the judiciary system in Syria, which is being comprised of both civil and religious courts. Civil courts hear both civil and criminal cases and they are divided into four hierarchical branches: the Courts of Peace, Courts of Conciliation (sulhiyya), and the Courts of First Instance (bida’iyya). The Court of Assize is an additional criminal court that hears cases in which the punishment may exceed three years’ imprisonment. The religious courts designated with jurisdiction over personal status matters are Shari’a courts for Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, madhhabi courts for Druze, and ruhi courts for Christians and Jews The Code of Personal Status applied to Muslims by the Shari’a courts has specific exemptions for Druze, Christians and Jews,[14] who have separate tribunals, thereby curbing religious oppression. Configuring religious sensitivities within the Syrian judicial system provides grounds for expanding impartiality to procedure and deliverance. Efficient technocrats operating within a civil law legal system are a rare commodity, but a necessity nevertheless if the benefits if impartial justice are to be recognized.

Making the State Abide by the Law

Locke’s famous inquiry: Why should rulers not have absolute power over their subjects? Because they have natural rights that preceded his ruling, he answered. According to Thomas Carothers, “Binding the government to rule by law is the sine qua non of the Rule of Law”[15]. This notion however is a highly political activity. Extracting a favorable stance for the Rule of Law from the power elite is precisely within this end goal, which will allow the prior procedural end goals to take hold. When law binds the government, real powers are transferred from the executive to the judiciary system. Strong, independent judiciary systems will be able to deliver efficient, impartial justice and insure equality before the law. Simultaneously, independent and strong judiciary systems will be able to curtail overarching government powers. A technical aspect might be of practical interest in this regard, which is to transfer the allegiance of the military, security apparatus, and police from the regime to the state, herein identifying the state by its constitution and its citizens[16].

The difficulty lies with the power elite realizing that expanding the base of people invested in the system will ultimately ensure the survival and prosperity of the state. With a multiethnic multi-religious society, the only way of engaging the masses of Syrians to guard and be invested in the unity of the state and the survival of their respective government, which is identified by its constitution and legal system, is by the government’s robust adherence to the ROL.

Rechtsstaat, A Point of Reference

Kant’s theories helped develop the concept of Rechtsstaat. German jurisprudence formulated this concept, which is designed to protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of power by the government. A Rechtsstaat employs Ronald Cass’s 2001 definition of the Rule of Law “Fidelity to rules of principled predictability, embodied in valid authority that is external to government decision makers”.

III Middle Eastern Colonial Legacies with respect to Judicial Institutions

Fullerton (2001)[17] conducted a wide study comparing the effectiveness of the Rule of Law in common law countries versus civil law countries in Africa. The title of her research is: “Inherited Legal Systems and Effective Rule of Law: Africa and the colonial legacy”. Through cross-national comparison based on Freedom House and Political Risk Services data, she found that common law countries in Africa are generally better at providing the Rule of Law than are civil law countries. However, this study did not focus precisely on the Middle East, but is nevertheless a good indicator of the wider implication of the French mandate and the inherited civil law system in Syria.

The differences between civil law and common law signify the differences between the English common law system and the continental European systems of justice. Civil law developed from the continental European system, which evolved from the codes of the Roman Empire. The French system, a civilian system, dictates the role of the individual within the state and emphasizes the idea of the state being supreme and the role of individual as obedience. This is in contrast with common law, which was developed with the idea of protecting the individual from the state[18]. The inquisitorial system of practice historically identified with the civil code of law places judges as the primary actors for gathering evidence and questioning witnesses with a tremendous trail of written proceedings. In this system, lawyers are advisors to their clients rather than the key trail actors. Trials are therefore reviews of the written record that has been collected by the judge.

Civil Law in the Roman tradition, according to Fullerton, developed as an instrument for expanding and administrating the empire. This became an effective tool for the state to regulate its citizens rather protect them from the encroachment of the state. Another interesting aspect of the impact of civil law on the effectiveness of the Rule of Law is that civil law institutions, because of the demand for written motions and records reviews, demands an efficient bureaucracy, an administrative aspect incredibly lacking in the developing world in general. Underpaid inefficient bureaucracy is a further impediment to justice.

The role of lawyers is of tremendous importance in providing alternative concentrations of power to the state, thereby enriching civil society. The role of lawyers was not completely developed by the time of independence; little attention was given to building the judiciary and the legal profession in countries under foreign mandate. This resulted in weak legal systems that were not fully equipped for substituting violent solutions to conflict. This weak judiciary and legal profession was incapable of foiling the power concentrated in the central government and the executive (Young 1994). The previously counted implications of adapting the civil law system in Syria and the ill- prepared judiciary system and legal profession at the time of independence combined with the impetus for the concentration of power in the executive made authoritarian rule an unavoidable fact in post-French mandate Syria.

IV The Role of Executive Power and Syria’s Judicial System

Since assuming power in 1970, Hafez Alassad was tremendously involved in creating an expansive organizational infrastructure, with a strict hierarchical command line in order for his government to consolidate control. This drastic organizational overhaul came on the heels of turbulent times in Syrian history from the 1946 independence untill the military coup of 1963, which brought the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (aka the Ba’ath Party) to power.

The Ba’ath Party mobilized a constituency around nationalistic and populist reforms in the 1960s and radicalized the military through the conflict with Israel. The emergency law was passed in 1962, which suspended most constitutional protection for Syrians and restricted political activity even further in the name of the “consistent struggle” with Israel and under the guise of guarding the power structure from internal as well as external threats. This paper argues that this formula is ill-suited for the challenges of the twenty first century, and if continued will be to the detriment of Syria as a country, for the following reasons:
a. The opposition inside and outside Syria is comprised of largely sophisticated intellectuals who denounce violence and whose grievances stand on legitimate constitutional grounds. Continuing to alienate these strata by confinement, restriction in travel or incarceration is only alienating the government apparatus and causing lingering frictions in the Syrian society.
b. A peace deal between Syria and Israel is inevitable, according to most analysts, which leaves little reasoning for the continuation of the Emergency Law.
c. Muslim Brotherhood was crushed between 1978 and 1982. They denounced violence as a tool for political change in the nineties and have repeated their denouncement in recent years with the rise of AlQaeda and Jund Alsham.
d. The magic populism invoked by notions of Arab unity, Pan-Arabism, defeat and elimination of Israel, that inspired the earlier generation of Ba’athists has been shelved in the minds of younger generations of Syrians[19] who are prioritizing sovereignty, dignity, transparency and economic development.
e. Increased access to technology and information, despite censorships, is undermining the tight government grip on freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. What is missing from the government’s strategy is the initiation of its official acceptance of free speech, political association and freedom of the press, thereby tapping into the hearts and minds of younger generations of Syrians and creating good will and loyalty among the masses and not just a select few. Old threats, the two being Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood, are now replaced by the threat of losing ground gradually with a diverse forward looking society,[20] which might threaten the very existence of a unified internal front.

The most preliminary type of reform, one that can be supervised and incrementally adjusted by the government, is the concept of the Rule of Law. Adherence to the rule of law will allow for a period of stable adjustment in power structures and simultaneously allowing the exchange necessary in “elite negotiation” with political activists and reformists. Configuring the enforcement of the Rule of Law within an organizational executive infrastructure is a matter of national security and national unity.

V The Rule of Law and Stability: Beyond Equality in the Eyes of the Law

An elaborate coercive apparatus sustained the regime for over thirty years in addition to a number of instances when the Syrian president enjoyed popular support. The military’s loyalty and the security apparatus combined with the economic and political elite who are the beneficiaries of longstanding patrimonial practices assisted this executive power. What sustained the loyalty of the security apparatus and the military to the executive was a number of ideological concepts imbedded in the context of 1960s and 1970s revolutionary ideas of anti-imperialism, sovereignty, and Pan-Arabism. While some concepts still hold today, many drivers of the ideology that banns constitutional rights to Syrians is loosing ground.

It is in the political elite’s interest to step up and fill this ideological gap with the timely and necessarily full adaptation of the Syrian constitution. The Syrian constitution is the domestically crafted, unifying and binding document that possesses both legitimacy and acceptance by all Syrians. The Syrian constitution has built-in mechanisms for improvement and progress in Part 3 (Amending the Constitution), Article149 (Initiative, Majority). What is of further interest is how much emphasis is placed on democracy as a vital concept in the Syrian constitution, especially in Chapter 1 (Basic Principles), Part 1 (Political Principles) and Article 1: (1) The Syrian Arab Republic is a democratic, popular, socialist, and sovereign state. As for Freedom of Expression Article 38 [Expression]: ”Every citizen has the right to freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression”.

While this paper is not concerned with the practical steps necessary for institutional (judiciary and legislative) reform that is able to uphold the Rule of Law, it nevertheless will acknowledge the grave difficulty of change on groups of society who have thrived under the regime and who fear repercussions once selective favoritism for example is banned. Overcoming pockets of resistance might take some time, hence a gradual enforcement from the top-down is another stability incentive that must be favorable to the power elite, or what Volker Perthes coins as the “Politically Relevant Elite”.

Some might argue that Authoritarianism is what has kept Syria intact since the 1960s. Although there is no empirical or otherwise distinguished qualitative analysis that would support such assertion, one might answer with: the course of social and political development that Syria has gone through from the 1960 through 2009 does not support the continuation of this argument. The authoritarian regime, since the Gulf War has been
playing an outdated game on borrowed time. It is time to own up to the future of this state and the wellbeing of Syrians and restore a good name to the Asad legacy by keeping this country united and secure and able to face the challenges of the future.

As noted by Patrick Seale[21], and reiterated by Volker Perthes,[22] approaching political reform is a tricky endeavor in an authoritarian, highly centralized regime. One might end up with a recycled political crowed. High levels of corruption and patramonialism will undermine calls for reform from outside the power circle.
On the other hand, reclaiming the Syrian constitution and abiding by the Rule of Law for the power elite will undercut a swift and abrupt implementation of the rule of law in case of a sudden disruption to the regime. Furthermore, reclaiming the Rule of Law and the Constitution by the ruling elite will ease the phase of elite negotiation and increase the negotiating leverage of the incumbent government. These are but partial results of implementing the ROL, which will ease the unavoidable push for reform in a stable and socially acceptable environment.

VI Conclusion

As indicated in the introduction of this paper, conventional wisdom concerning the promotion of the Rule of Law in Arab countries is largely based on “democratic prerequisite” assumptions. This paper recognizes the fallacy of this approach by pointing to the international factors that have sustained the coercive apparatus and hence the authoritarian regimes. One reason for such support is that security concerns in the ME region have indeed survived the Cold War. Thereby, the Middle Eastern region did not qualify for the thirds wave of democratization that has swept eastern European countries in the 1990s.

Blaming Syria’s experience with authoritarianism on the Alawit sect, and asserting that there is no hope for a country built on hate (Syria) to reform or to experience a peaceful coexistence with Israel, an argument put forth by Barry Rubin in his book “The Truth about Syria”[23] is a grave injustice. Aside from the author’s dogmatic approach, a careful deconstruction of the political and historical context and French mandated institutional influence would have revealed a different conclusion. This paper sees the authoritarian experience of Syria as a result of certain historical and political circumstances. Furthermore, the authoritarian system is partially supported by ideological concepts that have lost grounds in recent years, hence are in dire need of replenishment. This paper proposes adherence to the Rule of Law by the ruling elite as a strategic choice to bolster the unity of the internal front, sustain stability, and allow for a controlled and gradual process of reform. A reform that carries some clout since it is launched by the Rule of Law, a concept once imbedded in governmental institutions, will allow for a lawful and orderly transition to more equitable forms of governance. As such, a reform is unifying since it stems from core institutional principles, namely the Syrian constitution and the ability for it to emanate from Syrian courts. Efficient civil society can further its norms of justice within a legal and stable framework.

Adopting a complete adherence to the Rule of Law is not an obvious choice for the ruling elite, who would relinquish power voluntarily? Having control over how power is readjusted so that the judiciary system can be a reliable outlet for social progress is a wise and a long-term strategy.

-Carothers, Thomas “Promoting the Rule of Law Abroad: In Search of Knowledge”2006, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
-Hinnebusch, Raymond “Syria and Iran: Middle Powers in a penetrated regional system” 1997, Routledge
-Jackson, “Personal Rule in Black Africa”1982, University of California Press
-Perthes, Volker “Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change”, 2004 Lynne Rienner Publishers
-Rubin, Barry “The truth about Syria” 2007, Palgrave Macmillan
-Schraeder, “African Politics and Society” 2000, New York Bedford/ St.Martin
-Seale, Patrick “Asad”1989, University of California Press Edition
- Weeramantry, Christopher “Justice without Frontiers” 1997, Springer
-Bellin, Eva “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective” Comparative Politics, Vol.36, No. 2, (Jan., 2004) pp. 139-157. PhD Program in Political Science of the City University of NY
-Heinberg, John Gilbert,” Theories of Majority” The American Political Science Review. Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jun., 1932) pp. 452-469. Published by American Political Science Association
-Ingram, Peter,” Maintaining the Rule of Law” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No.141 (Oct., 1985) pp. 359-381. Published by: Blackwell Publishing for the Philosophical Quarterly
-Fullerton, Sandra “Inherited Legal Systems and Effective Rule of Law : Africa and the Colonial Legacy” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol39, No. 4, (Dec., 2001), pp. 571-596, Cambridge University Press

[1] Eva Bellin The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspectives 2004, p.149
[2] In addition to western preference for stability and the perseverance of territorial statues quo in the Middle East
[3] On the historical development of the Rule of Law in Islamic thought refer to Weeramantry, Justice Without Frontiers p.132
[4] Thomas Carothers Promoting the Rule of Law Abroad: In Search of Knowledge 2006, p.35
[5] Ethnic and religious percentages retrieved from date: May 10th.2009
[6] retrieved from date: May 9th, 2009
[7] Granting Kurds limited rights for broadcasts and education in the Kurdish language in 2004
[8] This notion is in direct contrast to imposing Democratic reforms from the outside on an authoritarian state system
[9] The Ottoman law of Family Rights governed matters of personal statues till 1953. In 1953, a commission passed the Tantawi draft code of personal law which is based on Takhayyor, and is still the bases of the Syrian Law system today. For more information consult retrieved May 6th, 2009
[10] For a closer look at the original document: The Syrian Constitution, enacted in March13th, 1973 consult retrieved May5th, 2009
[11] Syria adopted the codified legal system or “civil law” during the French mandate. After Syria’s independence in 1946, the civil law became part of the legal system along the Shari’a Law. The Shari’a Law is more compatible with the Common Law. Common Law is part of the legal system in Arab countries that were under British mandate. The stronger lawyers unions in Egypt and Jordan that traditionally carry Islamic undertones are no accident.
[12] Jason Borwnlee, “And Yet They Persist: Explaining Survival and Transition in Neo-Patrimonial Regimes,” 2002
[13] Sandra Fullerton Joirman “Inherited Legal Systems and Effective Rule of Law” 2001
[14] Further details on the Syrian court system consult retrieved May4th, 2009
[15] Thomas Carothers “Promoting the Rule of Law Abroad: In Search of Knowledge” 2006. p.37
[16] Carothers, p.38
[17] Sandra Fullerton,” Inherited Legal Systems and effective Rule of Law: Africa and the Colonial Legacy” The Journal of Modern Africa Studies, Vol.39, No.4 (Dec., 2001), pp.571-596 retrieved May1st, 2009
[18] Fullerton,p.574
[19]SYRIA - Baathists Fear Extinction". APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula. retrieved May 9, 2009

[20] 36% of the population is 14 and under. 61% is between 15-60. Literacy has jumped to 80% in recent years. retrieved May 8th, 2009
[21] Patrick Seale, “Asad” 1988
[22] Volker Perthes “Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change” , 2004, pp.87-111
[23] Barry Rubin,” The Truth about Syria”2007

Saturday, May 9, 2009

US Foreign Policy in the Middle East During the Clinton Administration: A Picture of Failure in a Pretty Frame


The apex of American triumph at the end of the bipolar world order in 1990 ushered in a need for a paradigm shift in US foreign policy. In fact, it was a paradigm shift called upon by logic since the US resided on the world scene as the only military, political, and economic superpower. Nevertheless, a sense of exhaustion prevailed in America, and the American public agreed with President Clinton during his presidential campaign that it was time to concentrate on domestic affairs, or what became to be known as domestic renewal. This call for an internal focus was certainly justified given educational, health, infrastructure, and other public concerns at the time. Hence, a Cold War oriented outlook coupled with a general reluctance to engage proactively in international matters had affected Clinton’s foreign policy rather negatively.

The demise of the bipolar world order ignited a chain of dramatic political and socioeconomic events worldwide. The most prominent of these thematic changes took place in Eastern Europe. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and many more nations realized their national potential as linked to the Western European and American democracies and market economies. These dramatic changes took place in the absence of American involvement. In the Middle East (ME), countries that had previously claimed alliance with the USSR were forced to reevaluate their stance during the Gulf War in 1991. Most of these ME countries sided with the international coalition headed by the US, hence officially starting an internal ideological shift within their respective societies. Questions about security, democratization, securing oil resources, and the security of Israel—conflicted interests by nature—further complicated an efficient US involvement[1] in the Middle Eastern region after the Gulf War.

One explanation for America’s disenchantment with international matters during the 1990s lies in the uncertainty of America’s role in the world at the end of the Cold War. Many contending visions of what that role should be competed for public and administrative attention in 1992 and 1993. One such vision was presented in 1993 by Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” Kulturkampf, or what this paper would term Huntington’s primitive call for tribalism in the West, in which America would represent the West against the rest. Despite this vision’s grandiose call for the barricades, according to Linda Miller, “Not surprisingly, theorizing at this level of meta-historical level
provides no guidelines for either the conduct of day-to-day international transaction or the management of crises.”

Other intellectuals, such as Kissinger, proposed the role of “Balancer” for the US along with other emerging powers, such as China, Japan, Russia, and Germany. Other visions proposed an American role somewhere between that of continuation as World Banker/ Policemen and world “Facilitator.” Faced with an overwhelming domestic commitment and the absence of a long-term strategy for “What America’s role should be in the world,” the Clinton administration chose to configure US domestic concerns, especially its economic concerns, into the foreign policy processes thus expanding America’s principles on the international scene. The Clinton administration opted to utilize foreign policy processes to further America’s economic interests, placing a special focus on Asia and Latin America, where such policies were perceived to yield gains that would ultimately filter into Clinton’s domestic agenda. On the international scene, this attempt to align America’s power, interests, and principles would have succeeded had it been accompanied by an equally determined and proactive foreign policy that was directly involved in matters of stability and political change in viable areas, such as the Middle East.

This paper will try to draw on the domestic and international context faced by the Clinton administration from 1993-2001 and the post Cold War/post Gulf War Middle
Eastern political context to illuminate the systematic failures of US foreign policy in the Middle East between 1993-2001. The general analysis will concentrate on the international and domestic opportunities and constraints faced by the incoming Clinton administration, which will lend itself to the political and socioeconomic discrepancies that prevailed in the Middle East during that period. The style of Clinton’s foreign policy that was conducted in the Middle East will further highlight missed opportunities and misjudgments that compounded, to the extent of leaving the Middle East by the end of 2000 in a far worse climate as far as US interests are concerned. All the while, photo ops of a peaceful PLO leader and a peaceful Netanyahu were shown while they were conducting peace talks during the Oslo Accord, while peaceful UN oil for food programs were continuing their operations in Iraq. This took place while the heads of Middle Eastern states confirmed their grip on power by guaranteeing the viability of the political status quo to their American counterparts as the only choice for a stable and controlled Middle East[2].

This paper will seek to arrive at the conclusion that the Middle East hardly qualifies as a region that is “safe to ignore” or to conduct an ambiguous foreign policy or Band-Aid diplomacy[3] towards it. Moreover, increasingly, ordinary citizens in the Middle East perceive the US as the guardian of the prevailing political systems governing them since the 1960s. An official alliance with the political and economic elite, many of whom caused lingering grievances towards the masses in the Middle East, is not an efficient
long-term strategy relative to US interests—unless such strategy will inject incremental grassroots support for reform on both the political and economic fronts while abstaining from sponsoring regime change. Stability and the preservation of US interests in the oil reserves of the region are directly linked with fostering goodwill with the masses in the Middle East.

1992-2000 Domestic and International Opportunities and Constraints facing the Clinton Administration

What amounted to being a period of victory for Western and particularly American values and principles at the end of the Cold War also was becoming a period of grave uncertainly where nostalgia for the Cold War mentality was all too common. Like any presidential period in American history, President Clinton’s staff and advisors invested tremendous amounts of effort in conceptualizing a long-term strategy for American policy, both domestically and abroad.

In order to replace the Cold War strategy of “containment,” an effort was made to encompass worldwide attraction towards democratic standards and capitalism, the best concept for which was celebrating such transformation became the “enlargement”
strategy (Lake 1993). The enlargement concept did not provide a clearer alternative for the “pro-democracy foreign policy” strategy, which was advocated initially. The enlargement strategy, as advanced by Clinton’s National Security advisor Anthony Lake in 1993, was designed to replace the urgency of protecting democracies against communism with enlarging the blue blobs on the world map. In addition to this central theme, it also advocated a harder line in cases of countries perceived as being “anti-democratic” or “anti-Western.” The course of action designed for states categorized as “anti-Western”[4] would be to “isolate them diplomatically, militarily, economically, and technologically.” Furthermore, “When the actions of such states directly threaten our people, our forces or our vital interests, we must be prepared to strike unilaterally” (Lake 1993:9). The Jackson wing in the Democratic Party, in which Samuel Huntington was a prominent figure, further emphasized a grand geopolitical vision for the United States based on fault lines between civilizations. Huntington said, “The national leadership of the Democratic Party has often lacked clear understanding and firm purpose in world affairs. But we believe Bill Clinton and Al Gore see the promise and dangers now before us” (Quoted in Moffett 1992:6)[5].

The official strategic plan defining Clinton’s foreign policy is best described by Warren Christopher during his testimony for nomination for the post of secretary of state. He stated, “First, we must elevate America’s economic security as a primary goal of our foreign policy. Second, we must preserve our military strength as we adapt our forces to
new security challenges. Third, we must organize our foreign policy around the goal of promoting the spread of democracy and markets abroad” (Christopher 1993:45).

Clinton’s doctrine further bolstered the final argument in the enlargement strategy, thus providing the legal backup for using decisive military force “to strike back unilaterally.” The economics-infused foreign policy coupled with tremendous leverage in striking back at those perceived as endangering immediate or long-term interests gave way for a surprisingly clear and simple categorization of the world and its inhabitants. On one hand, intense trade negotiations took place with Asian and Latin American countries in addition to limited economic aid to Eastern European countries. On the other hand, economic sanctions were imposed in the Middle East on Iraq, and others in the region were threatened with the same measure or with swift military action.

In many respects, the ongoing conceptualization of an American foreign policy strategy in conjunction with its economic emphasis seemed to continue with the same rhetorical material prescribed for the Cold War. This time, however, rogue states and rogue elements became the new discourse of danger (Luke 1991).

This American internal foreign policy discourse did not proceed without measurable institutional maneuvering. One of these was the Republican senate while the
other was comprised of various interest groups that had both an economic and political stake in the policies being granted.

As explained earlier, President Clinton committed himself primarily to the domestic agenda. Hence, any time allocated to international matters had to be closely related to domestic considerations. This explains the late American intervention in the Balkan civil war. Within this prescribed domestic American context, timely, measurable, and proactive responses to international matters seemed unlikely. Nowhere did this reality materialize better than in the Middle East.

On the international scene, American predominance in Europe began to wane, and the Europeans seemed preoccupied with internal matters concerning regional unity and the democratization and economic transformations occurring rapidly in their backyard. The international scene was consumed with the rapid technological process of globalization and the rapid formation of what became known as the Global Economy. The concentrated international trade negotiations led by the United States seemed to have the affect of selectively bypassing ideological particulars, especially in the case of China, to what seems to be a mutually beneficial and flexible realm. Clinton’s administration had the good fortune of negotiating in a decade during which most countries, the US included, were operating under the “giving the benefit of the doubt” mode towards the benefits of free trade. This eroded rather quickly in the latter half of the 1990s, in terms
of achieving consensus on the terms of international trade between northern and southern countries.

The role of international terrorism[6] demanded direct and focused attention from the Clinton administration. These non-state actors, and the states harboring them, were seen as delusional groups marginalized by the globalization process, groups that craved a return to ancient ways of living, hence making them appear irrational and unworthy of addressing their grievances. Compounded reactive measures to this phenomenon, complicated by limited publicity, turned out to be the decisive catalyst of the Middle Eastern scene in 2000.

The most vocally radical of these groups was Al-Qaida, with Osama bin Laden as the mentor and spokesperson of the “Afghanis.”[7] The threat posed by Osama bin Laden on the international structure, especially regarding regional Middle Eastern alliances, and the Gulf States’ governments becoming a real object of discussion in 1993, made it necessary to conceive the best eradication action possible. Bin Laden was expelled after his return to his homeland, Saudi Arabia, in 1991, and his citizenship was revoked in 1994. He took refuge in Sudan in 1991-1996 after having left military style training camps and barracks in Afghanistan, where Afghanis and their families resided.

The US government pressured the Sudanese government to expel Bin Laden, who in turn returned to Afghanistan in 1996 and allied Al-Qaida with the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration was already involved in strategic military operations in Iraq in 1993 and again in 1998 to bolster economic sanctions and enforce the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. The terrorist network called for an outright war against the US in 1998, after having already committed bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and again in 1996. 1998 saw the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya and Tanzania, after which the US responded with air strikes against Afghani training camps in 1998, and a strike against Sudan later that same year, which targeted a pharmaceutical plant[8].

What this asymmetrical reactionary warfare produced was a perceived manifestation of an ethno-religious struggle—utilized by the radical Islamic movements’ worldwide and led by Al-Qaida—to intensify anti-American sentiment, which grew increasingly intense and highly mobilized. The strategic US military air strikes provided the illusion of control while avoiding the traditional repercussions of military involvement in foreign territory. However, they did threaten US interests in the region and around the world exponentially. As noted by Secretary of State Christopher, there was a “a new threat” that would not require a different approach as far as military deterrence was concerned, unless the nature of that new threat was completely different than previous threats faced by the US. The different nature of that new threat was largely
dismissed; hence, intense regional military preparedness and reaction in the ME became a natural and logical response to a traditional understanding of “a threat to US interests.”

In parallel to these dramatic and fact-changing developments in the Middle East, intense bilateral[9] peace negotiations between the PLO and the Israeli government were taking place. Oslo I, or what is officially known as the Declaration on Interim Self Governance Arrangements, engaged in by Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Perez, was signed in 1993. Numerous studies have been conducted to analyze the real outcome of these negotiations. Many scholars of Middle Eastern and conflict resolution studies echo the conclusion reached by Cheryl Rubenberg in her book “The Palestinians: In search for a Just Peace.” Essentially, Israel never intended to withdraw from the occupied territory based on UN resolution 242 or to allow a territorially dignified Palestinian state to take shape. The Oslo negotiations, according to Rubenberg, were an Israeli effort to transfer the burden of controlling a discontented population to the Palestinian police and security forces, without recognition of the Palestinians’ fundamental rights. Her use of Israeli resources in her argument makes this thesis that much more compelling, given the documented deteriorating statistics on the decrease in per capita income, unemployment tripling between 1993-1998, and degrading health and educational services in Gaza and the West Bank during and after the Oslo accord.[10] The Clinton administration assumed the role of supervisor during these negotiations and generally became less engaged with the Oslo process, except for limited engagement in parts of the discussions. On another peace negotiation track, specifically the Jordan-Israeli peace negotiations, the US found itself much more involved. Indeed, given the likelihood of their success, its attention was well spent. The Arab Peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, signed in 1994, was a successful peace arrangement between, more or less, equals.

III 1993-2001 Post Cold War, Post Gulf War Middle East

As mentioned previously, the Gulf War forced the reality of the Soviet Union’s collapse onto the political processes of ME governments. Most Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of the PLO[11], sided with the US-led coalition during the Gulf War. Countries in the region underwent an ideological shift that produced looming uncertainty about America’s role in the region and how the regimes’ security needs could be configured with respect to future US interests in the region. The Syrian-American energized relations in the 1990s[12], apart from Al-Assad realpolitik approach to foreign policy, symbolized the drastic shifts in power configurations and the resulting shifts in interests. Notably, some advancement was reported in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks from 1994-1997.

Although these ideological shifts can be counted as a strategic opportunity for the US if taken at face value, a closer look reveals a contrary situation. Natural progression towards democracy in the region was crippled due to a multitude of factors. The security
of the regional regimes was taken as a choice with no alternative given the rise of anti-Americanism deriving from Iraq’s economic sanctions and the continued Palestinian struggle. The traditional “status quo plus” advocated by Bush senior in the ME region that would stabilize and deal with any possible problem in an ad hoc fashion, was continued by the Clinton administration. Thus, since the oil reserves had to be protected from demanding and emerging economies, traditional alignments between the US and the regimes in the Gulf States were seen as crucial. Israeli security and her right to defend herself were upheld consistently due to domestic considerations.

The economic sanctions in Iraq weakened Saddam Hussein’s regime as an international threat but kept him as an authoritative and oppressive figure on the Iraqi landscape. He was able to bypass UN restrictions on oil production and sale, which in turn supported his patrimonial practices and hold on power.

While ME societies were dealing with emerging ideological shifts and were trying to manage the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the return of the Afghanis made another splash in an already complicated environment. The reemergence of seasoned “Islamic” fighters posed a security and existential threat to ME regimes. The ME states feared that the Islamists’ agenda and worldview might fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was seen as a pro-oppressed power confronting the West). In addition, however, there was a subtle sentiment shared by the
masses in the Middle East, partially invoked by these social configurations after the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War, which demanded a fresh look at the ME style of governance and government-citizen relations beyond the traditional secret service filter.

The Palestinians, who saw their livelihood deteriorate even further during the Oslo negotiations, provided a confusing image relative to the purpose of any peace negotiations. On one hand, the Palestinian Authority (PLO) was celebrating a success on the White House lawn while ordinary citizens in Gaza and the West Bank were seeing a devastating decline in their livelihoods. Furthermore, questions about representing the Palestinian interests became a current discourse among Palestinians, which might help explain the rise of Hamas—and its anticorruption claim—as a political substitute in Palestinian politics.

The Israeli attacks on Lebanon in April 1996, which killed 150 civilians, outraged governments and citizens alike in the ME region. The subsequent historic Israeli elections in May 1996, alongside simultaneous Knesset elections, ushered in Benjamin Netanyahu as the head of the Likud party and the new Israeli prime minister. A turn to the right in Israeli politics always fires up US critics in the ME region, thereby compounding both blame and frustration[13]. Israel was able to conduct hit-and-run air strikes against Lebanese and Palestinian targets throughout the 1990s—US style—while being deprived of territorial maneuverability available to US military forces. Israel was also risking the
prospect of expanding the region’s memory of lingering grievances. John Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, saw these and US military strikes as counterproductive and contended, “The problem is getting worse faster than we are getting better” (Quoted in Ottaway 1996).

Terrorism, furthermore, exacerbated the uneven economic development dilemma that plagued the 1990s. What Thurow (1992:15) prescribed as the “new administrative, economic, technological rivalry forming the basis of twenty first century geopolitics” seemed regionally bound with existing democracies, and rightfully so.

IV Foreign Policy Making During the Clinton Administration: Style and Deliverance

An interesting inquiry might be made into how the structural aspects of US foreign policy making in the ME region—which stretches back to the 1950s when the US inherited British and French legacies—is bound with informational and tactical deficiencies. A possible inquiry could also be made into the style and deliverance of US foreign policy in the region, which in turn would limit such inquisition to specific presidential periods. This paper will focus on the style and deliverance of US foreign policy in the Middle East as an indicator of the structural, informational, and tactical deficiencies that contributed to a stream of failures in the Middle East during the 1990s.

There is a distinct contrast between Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in 1973, Carter’s Camp David, and Baker’s preparation for the Madrid peace conference, and Clinton’s foreign diplomacy in the Middle East in 1993-2001. Considering the international context in the 1990’s, ample space remains for the evaluation of the effectiveness in which US foreign policy was conducted with respect to President Clinton’s management style and administrative deliverance.

The personal traits that distinguished President Clinton’s style, as notably accounted for in Maraniss’s “First in His Class: The Bibliography of Bill Clinton,” where Maraniss contends that Clinton’s strengths were his weaknesses and visa versa. His pacifying style was indeed effective in conducting summits, yet it was counterproductive when decisiveness and reaching hard compromises were called for. He was intelligent but not focused, personable but not loyal politically, skillful but deeply self-centered, flexible but without a solid core of convictions (Quandt 2001). He was able to fascinate his many visitors from the Middle East, Arabs and Israelis alike, both convinced that President Clinton sympathized with their historical claims, especially towards the end of his presidential term[14]. A notable feature of his style, especially with respect to the Palestinian- Israeli negotiations, was his incremental approach, which counted on building confidence between the two parties, but postponed discussions about the hardest issues. Among those issues were Jerusalem, illegal settlements, and the right of return of refugees, all of which became less tractable as time passed and frustrated an increasing proportion of the ME population, who sensed deceit and short handedness in the peace negotiations.
As violence erupted in 2000 in the occupied territories, none of the subsequent meetings between Barak and Arafat seemed to convince anyone that real negotiations for peace were taking place; indeed, what unraveled at these meetings was negotiation for a truce. In October 2000, two Israeli soldiers were killed in Ramallah prompting a helicopter gunship attack. On the same day, in Aden harbor, the USS Cole was attacked killing 17 US seamen. Whether there is a direct causal instigation between these events is not known; however, what can be inferred relative to US interests in the region, is that the undercurrent of regional sympathy with the Palestinian plight was grossly underestimated.

Ambiguity during a decisive moment might have derailed a successful peace agreement between Israel and Syria. In fact, both parties had discussed principle and partial administrative issues with regard to a peace deal based on the “land for peace” initiative launched by Al-Assad. Rabin had made the offer to return the Golan Heights in exchange for a grant of peace and security by Syria. What helped these negotiations move along was the neutral and quiet Syrian/Israeli borderline. In January 2000, a draft accord was put together in West Virginia[15], despite the fact that it did not state specifically that Israel would recognize the 4 June 1967 line as the future border.

Nevertheless, in February 2000, Barak told his cabinet members that Rabin had previously agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the 4 June 1967 line, and that he would not “erase the past.” This Israeli leaning, however, did not filter into the US role as a facilitator. There was an attempt to utilize international pressure on an ailing Syrian president to extract a less than desirable consent by the Syrians, which would have counted as a political success for some Clinton supporters. The ambiguous part with respect to US foreign policy was when President Clinton met with Al-Assad in Geneva in April 2000, citing “good news,” which was essentially a retreat from Rabin’s offer because it excluded certain territories that were under Syrian control before 1967. The informational and tactical gap is obvious in this case. Any consideration of Al-Assad’s demeanor and negotiating style should have led to the obvious conclusion that he would not accept a retreat from Rabin’s offer and would otherwise end negotiations, which happened after the Geneva meeting. Risking the collapse of years of negotiations between the two parties further illuminates the tactical deficiencies. President Clinton was adamant about leaving office with high marks for his efforts in Middle East peace negotiations. But what resulted was a failure that stemmed from shortsighted opportunism coupled with debilitating incrementalism and an inability to utilize expansive American regional intelligence resources to secure strategic deals. The collapse of the Syrian and the Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2000 sent the region into a spiraling downturn.

In 2000, the liberal intelligentsia in the Middle East, along with what is coined as “Moderates” in the region, had nothing to show for their pro-Western advocacy when
faced with the collapse of the peace talks and the eruption of violence in the occupied territories. Iraq’s population was paying a heavy toll under Saddam and the economic sanctions. US air strikes were a looming possibility for any territory deemed as a danger in the Middle East. This perfect storm played well into the ideology of the resistance movements that advocated violence as the only means to change the “unacceptable” status quo.

V Conclusion

No amount of courteous personal relations with statesmen in the ME region can substitute for an honest adherence to US national interests. The cost benefit analysis of ignoring, or at best pacifying grievances of this magnitude including the Palestinian plight and oppressive regimes in the ME, will reveal a different course of US foreign policy action. It is one that should be based on employing a decent amount of resources to support grassroots efforts for political and economic reform in the Middle East. Being part of creating a viable environment for the people of ME, motivating them to become invested in their respective forms of governance, is the only solution to counter contempt for America’s unchanging strategic presence in the Middle East.


Ambrose, Stephen E. and Douglas G. Brinkley Rise to Globalism .Penguin Books 1997
Cobban, Helena The Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks 1991-1996 and Beyond (Washington: United Institute of Peace Press 1999)

Huntington, Samuels Clash of Civilization. Simon & Schuster 1998

Klare, Michael T. Blood and Oil Henry Holt and Company LLC 2004

Luke, Timothy W. and Gearoid O Tuathail. Present at the (Dis)Integration: Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization in the New World Order. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 84, No.3 (Sep., 19940, pp.381-398. Published by : Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the association of American Geographers URL: Accessed: 28/04/2009

Miller, Linda B. The Clinton Years: Reinventing US Foreign Policy? . International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 70, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 621-634 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs Stable URL: Accessed: 27/04/2009

Quandt ,William B. Clinton and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Limits of Incrementalism . Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter, 2001), pp. 26-40 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies Stable
URL: Accessed: 27/04/2009

Rubenburg, Cheryl. The Palestinians: In Search for a Just Peace. Lynne Rienner Publishers 2003

Snow, Donald M. United States Foreign Policy. Thomson Wadworth 2005

Watkins, Eric The Unfolding US Policy in the Middle East International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) . Vol.73, No.1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 1-14. Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. URL : Accessed 27/04/2009

[1] Efficient US involvement as defined by securing US priority interests in the region: namely securing oil reserves and stability
[2] Revoking the democratic elections in Algeria in 1992 was an example of what has become an acceptable yet devastating strategy of “protecting democracy undemocratically” against Islamic concentrations seeking power through democratic elections
[3] A term coined by Kissinger describing Clinton’s foreign policy
[4] Or “Rogue States” as later defined by the Clinton Administration in 1994. This categorization filtered into the modes of pressuring uncooperative regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.

[5] This period saw an increase in ethno-religious readings of Global Politics in the Foreign Policy establishment

[6] Moved to the forefront by the World Trade center bombing in 1993 and the investigation that ensued to uncover the co conspirators
[7] Arab and non-Arab fighters, who came from all Muslim countries in order to liberate Afghanistan form Soviet occupation, where shunned upon their return to their homelands after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Many decided to dedicate their lives to liberate Muslim land from what they perceived as imperial forces (ie American military presence, which later expanded to all western citizenry).

[8] Targeting the Shefaa Pharmaceutical plant, which employed 300 people and supplied about 50% of the medicinal needs of Sudan, sighting among other things Islamists’ financial support of the pharmaceutical plant.

[9] There is an implicit assumption of equal partnership in this term “bilateral” which is a questionable implication

[10] For reference and in-depth report on Palestinian affairs during the Oslo accord consult the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs retrieved 5/1/2009
[11] One of the many unexplainable political bloopers of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian concentrations in the Gulf states suffered tremendously as they paid with their expulsion from those hosting countries.

[12]A strategic closeness that was prompted by the Ta’ef agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989. Where Syria, the US and Saudi Arabia were the major brokers of the deal between the Lebanese factions and between Lebanese and Palestinian refuges in Lebanon
[13] When Ehud Barak was elected in 1999, he managed to convince the American administration to be even less involved in details of future peace negotiations. Barak advocated seeking agreements on principles with the Palestinians and leaving the details for later. Principles understood as Israeli security
[14]President Clinton refused any contact with the PLO until Oslo and did not publicly support a two state solution, an option that was already being considered by Perez and Barak (Quandt 1994, 2001)

[15]The draft of the peace treaty was leaked to the Israeli press Ha’aretz (English), 13 June 2000 as noted in (Quandt 2001)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Isolating Syria Strategy

I will be presenting this paper at the International Studies Association Conference in NY Feb 2009

Isolating Syria Strategy, Is it Isolating America in the Middle East?

When former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice coined the term “The New Middle East” in Tel Aviv in 2006,[1] it was an extension of an ongoing preemptive/deterrence policy towards what was perceived as rogue elements and states in the Middle East. As much as the word “new” inspires hope, the concept as a whole encompassed the consistency with which the Bush doctrine and the National Security Strategy were upheld as the drivers of Middle Eastern-US foreign policy from 2000 through 2008. By the end of the July 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, a new dynamic had emerged that contrasted with what was demanded by “The New Middle East” concept. A new Middle East began to take shape, one that was not guided by the proposed US foreign policy but rather as a regional reaction to it. Proactive power relations started to emerge that have increasingly sidelined American influence and hence may jeopardize vital American interests in the future.

This paper will try to reclaim the US “New Middle East” concept by formatting that approach within an internationalism understanding[2]grounded in dialogue and reengagement, optimizing regional stability aims, and supporting progressive elements in the region. This paper will consider the case of the US policy of isolating Syria,[3] which began extensively during 2003. It will demonstrate the severe lack of regional understanding that prompted this policy and examine how it affected the ease of US regional maneuvering at the time it was most needed, specifically in the case of Iraq and Lebanon.

This paper will start with a detailed account of Syrian foreign policy from 1970 to the present. It will also describe the ability of the Syrian government to stabilize its domestic front consistently and project its influence beyond its borders. This chronological reading of Syrian and US foreign policies will try to debase isolation arguments by reevaluating assertions, such as projecting irrationality onto the states that resist American influence. Furthermore, this paper will demonstrate the negative impact of simplifying and reducing intricate geopolitical realities to mischievous projections onto Syrian foreign policy.

At its conclusion, this paper hopes to arrive at a renewed and optimized understanding of the “New Middle East” concept. Achieving this will be accomplished by dismantling the arguments that supported the isolation strategies and constructing a reasonable argument for recognizing the interests of regional power holders. Advancing and protecting US interests in the Middle Eastern region is a vital priority. Breaking the isolation mold that mitigated the impact of US foreign policy in the region will decrease the oppositional advantage held by countries like Syria and Iran. Furthermore, it will increase the operational opportunities for US foreign policy makers, optimize stabilizing strategies, and bolster progressive movements in the region.

Syrian Foreign Policy, 1970 to the Present:

When Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, Syria had been under Ba’athists rule since 1963. The breakdown of the old ruling class was well underway because of the imposed land reform and internationalization actions. The Ba’ath party gained some legitimacy due to its advocacy of Arab nationalism and populist reforms (Devlin 1976, Petran 1972). Syrian foreign policy between 1963 and 1970 was a dysfunctional manifestation of internal struggles and domestic factionalism leading to defeat in the 1967 war as an embodiment of the foreign policy turbulence in Syria at the time.

Syria’s bitter defeat in 1967 paved the way for the realization of Israel as a possible permanent entity in the region. Moreover, the 1967 war ushered in new leadership that would unite the regime and state, and that would adapt a realist foreign policy (Hinnebusch 1997). Hafez al-Assad would be able in 20 years’ time to transform Syria from an artificial entity with limited natural endowments to a regional middle power, by focusing a realist’s understanding of security, stability, and economic pragmatism.

The internal front was consolidated and stabilized through a number of authoritarian means, hence allowing for reasonably autonomous foreign policy maneuvers[4]. Hafez al-Assad created a loyal economic base through massive employment in state bureaucracies and public enterprises. The secret service apparatus was a critical part of a strictly vertical hierarchical system of command. The loyalty of the army throughout his presidency diminished the constraints of party ideology. Limited economic liberalization also fostered a new economic elite that was state dependent and loyal to patrimonial and clientele compositions (Hinnebusch 1997, Perthes 1995).

After 1970, Syrian foreign policy was not subordinated to the task of state building as described by Goode (1962). Nor did it subordinate itself to settling internal power struggles. Syrian foreign policy became an extension of a calculated strategy that lacked consistency in many respects but was never seized upon to prioritize Syrian national interests—even if the cost was credibility in the eyes of its temporary allies. Syria’s relation with the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) would be one example demonstrating this feature in Syrian foreign policy. The PKK remained a sore point in Turkey-Syrian relations for much of the last quarter of the 20th century. Syria’s main complaint was Turkey’s assertion of sovereignty over the Euphrates. Handing over Abdullah Öcalan to Ankara in 1998 was done in exchange for much needed attention from Turkey regarding Syrian complaints about water, among other logistical accommodations[5]. A closer relation between the two countries was also facilitated by the Iraq war and the rise to power of Ordogan and Gul[6]. Prioritizing Syria’s access to natural resources over its alliance with the PKK is one example that demonstrates the lack of ideological penetration into Syrian foreign policy and the steadfastness with which Syria tackles its transitory alliances with respect to its national interests.

Foreign policy processes in Syria during the 1970s incorporated geopolitical realities, namely the threats and opportunities of the external environment, and they sold the notion of Syria being at the forefront of the fighting for Arab rights[7]. This role allowed Syria to define Arab national interests while prioritizing Syria’s military and security needs under the slogan of “what is good for Syria is good for the Arab nation.” This stance brought in a constant flow of Arab aid, which sustained a reasonable upward trend in Syria’s economy during the 1970s (Perthes 1995, 50). Al-Assad, allied with the USSR, Egypt, and pro-Western Arab oil states, tried to regain the Golan Heights in 1973. By challenging the Israeli status quo, al-Assad was able to recognize relative political success and responded positively to Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy at the time. Once the Golan disengagement was signed in 1974, it was observed diligently (Ehteshami, 1997). In parallel, once in power, Hafez al-Asad scaled down Syria’s objectives in favor of a more realistic yet optimistic approach to containing Israeli hegemony within its pre-1967 borders. He advocated “land for peace” under UN resolutions 242 and 338.

A trend of realpolitik emerged under al-Assad. Despite the fact that he wanted to be perceived as a champion of Arab nationalism, he was able to compound the rhetoric of populists and nationalists using an ad hoc and relatively autonomous Syrian foreign policy strategy. Consolidating the power base and being unconstrained by domestic consent to his raison d’etat, al-Assad was able to build up Syria’s military power aiming at strategic parity with Israel in order to stabilize any peace agreement that might be reached. Meanwhile, al-Assad lobbied and pressured other Arab countries away from accepting any separate peace deals with Israel (Seale 1988) that might have jeopardized Syrian negotiation terms, and he achieved relative success in that regard. In particular, al-Assad was able to influence and at times control Palestinian affairs.

When the Lebanese civil war broke out, Syria saw an imminent security and spillover threat at its doorstep and intervened in 1976. Nesting logistical resources including its secret service, military checkpoints, and general economic and security interests in Lebanon, allowed for “real-time” oversight of not only Lebanese and Palestinian affairs but also Arab and Western interests in Lebanon[8].

What made Syria’s clear entrenchment in Lebanese affairs in the 1980s even more remarkable was the internal economic and social turmoil Syria experienced in the early 1980s. The flow of Arab aid deteriorated during that decade with the dramatic downfall of oil prices, a general global economic slowdown, coupled with the surfacing of inefficiencies in the public industrial sector, all of which exacerbated social discontent in Syria[9]. The violent suppression of the Islamic revolt of the early 1980s is well known. What might be of interest here is recognizing this expansion of Syrian influence into Lebanon as a critical economic and security expansion that would support Syrian economic interests during the 1980s and 1990s (Deeb 1980)[10].

The Israeli war in Lebanon in 1982, which aimed at eliminating Syrian presence in Lebanon, expelling the PLO, and striking a Lebanese-Israeli accord saw fierce Syrian resistance. Syria was able in a short time to change its strategic alliance with Lebanese Maronites and utilize Lebanese Muslim grievances to resist Israeli hegemony over Lebanon. Again, apart from having an ideological theme inherent in its processes, Syrian foreign policy was both flexible and highly adaptive to the environmental constraints. This was not a mere reactionary force, but as a proactive, focused foreign policy process with a reliable track record of minimizing threats and maximizing the realization of Syrian national interests. Lebanon signed the Taif agreement in 1990, supported by the US and Saudi Arabia, which solidified Syrian presence in Lebanon.

Syria lost a number of allies upon the conclusion of the Cold War. The dissolution of the USSR and the ever-shrinking communist bloc heightened the pragmatism already evident in Syrian foreign policy. As an ardent supporter of the status quo, Syria supported the Gulf states and the Western allies against Iraq. This period also saw a return of Arab and European aid and investments to Syria (Perthes 1995, 65).

The positive turnaround of the global economy during the 1990s and the emergence of the United States as the sole super power allowed American foreign policy to initiate the rules of the game as far as international dynamics were concerned. Syria saw itself increasingly on the sidelines of globalization during the 1990s despite serious economic liberalization initiatives (Infitah) and receiving 25% of all Arab aid[11]. There was a push to get “Syria on board” according to Madeline Albright and according to the constructive engagement[12] principle, although Syria remained on the list of countries supporting international terror. Peace negotiations were well underway between Syria and Israel after the Oslo peace accord until 1996, when Israel broke them off after a number of terror attacks in Israeli cities[13].

US Foreign Policy from 1992 to the present:

Three points are of special interest in the period 1992 to 2000. One is that the Clinton administration had a perfect opportunity for brokering a lasting peace deal with an ailing Syrian president, who did everything possible to leave the Syrian house in order within the grip of the Ba’athists. Yet the US accommodated Israeli security concerns regarding contentious demilitarization provisions and criticized Syrian officials for insisting on implementing UN resolutions 242 and 338[14]. The second is that although Syria lost its control over the PLO and the official Palestinian authority, it started to close this security gap by engaging in closer relations with regional resistance actors, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, both[15] of which had intense Islamic undertones. This dramatic reemergence of the Islamic resistance movement compelled the Syrian government (secular in principle) to reconcile its popular rhetoric with a strategic realignment with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, and began reclaiming and adapting Islamic symbolism for freedom and dignity[16], a sociopolitical trend that paid off twice. It worked as a cohesive social agent on the domestic front during the transitional period when Bashar al-Assad assumed power and again on the regional scene during the intense isolation policies of the Bush administration.

The third relevant point is the Clinton doctrine and the strategic conceptualization of key terms, such as “rogue states” during the 1990s[17]. The United States’ entitlement to resort to “unilateral use of military power” to ensure “inhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources” was part of a regional containment strategy that defined acceptable international behavior. The term rogue states was ambiguous, subjective[18], and did not deter Iran, for example, from acquiring nuclear capability. One can argue to the contrary that this labeling carried an implicit threat to countries like Iran and Syria, which in turn mobilized their efforts to look for alternative strategies to ensure regional dominance. Iran Syria axis counterbalanced the pro western alliance of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Both defiant countries, although headed by two moderates at the time—Khatemi (1997) and Bashar al-Assad (2000)—mobilized geopolitical, cultural, and economic resources to arrive at a congruent understanding that both will be able to insure their national security and guide political developments within their respective spheres of influence[19]. This realist foreign policy strategy paid off during the Iraq war in 2003, the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, during the political uproar against the Lebanese Seniora government in 2007, and again during the Israeli siege and subsequent war on Gaza in December 2008.

Why Isolating Syria Isolated American Foreign Policy in the Middle East:

After President Bashar al-Assad assumed power in Syria in July 2000, the country engaged in intense diplomatic efforts. In order to strengthen Syrian resolve and leadership in the Middle East with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a regional middle power alliance with Iran started to take shape[20]. One can clearly contrast the Iranian Syrian alliance with the Egyptian Saudi Arabian alliance as two opposing ends of a power tug. Syria was keen on improving diplomatic and economic relations with Europe and pro-Western Arab countries, such as the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt. Even Syrian-Turkish relations saw considerable improvement, thanks to Turkey reconsidering its non-interventionist policies regarding the Middle East.

With the announced American war on terror after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a number of policy recommendations continued the unilateral action approach announced during the Clinton era. The National Security Strategy and the Bush Doctrine afterward minimized the ability of US foreign policy makers to produce practical arguments for reengaging states accused of aiding terror. The relevance of international norms with regard to “middle ground negotiations” were minimized when contrasted with the perceived security threats emanating from states such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The gradual maturation of the argument imposing isolation on Syria had a historical precedent but it materialized officially when Syria vocally opposed the war on Iraq in 2003.

The security threat this war represented to the Syrian regime was multifold. The domino effect and the democratic overhaul of the region as advocated by the Bush administration was less of a concern than the forceful regime change that took place in Iraq[21]. Sidelining Syria at the beginning of the war accelerated Syrian resolve to synchronize Syrian-Iranian efforts to utilize the fallen parts of the Iraqi government. This was evidenced from the Ba’athists and Islamist fighters crossing the Syrian borders into the Anbar region to the relative easy absorption of Iraqi refugees and the abundance of intelligence they brought. Counterbalancing American ground presence in Iraq meant manipulating the security and intelligence weaknesses of the invading party—with relative success. Once the Maliki government was in place, the only way Iraq was able to gain better intelligence on foreign and domestic oppositional groups was after Maliki’s visit to Syria in August 2007[22], which came after similar visits to Iran. Although criticized by the American government, the elected Iraqi government had a deeper understanding of how regional power volatilities might creep into their domestic front and fuel instability when ignored.

“Either with us or against us” statements, often repeated within the security and political context for the Iraq war build up, categorized Syria in the “against us” camp for opposing the Iraq war along with aiding conventional terrorism. In addition to multiple provisions in the Syrian Accountability Act signed by President Bush on December 12, 2003 pertaining to Lebanese sovereignty[23], in May 2004, President Bush issued an executive order banning all US exports to Syria except for food and medicine. This economic ban did not have a real effect on Syrian commerce due to diverse Syrian trade relations[24]. The symbolism of this executive order marked the departure from relative accommodation towards Syria’s control over Lebanon and its law defying oil trade with Iraq, and commenced the systematic attempt to deplete the impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Political turmoil was brewing in Lebanon in 2004 as Syria pushed for a presidential term extension for pro-Syrian president Emil Lahud. International political pressure from the US and France, and discussion about the UN Security Council resolution cornered Syrian foreign policy makers[25]. The Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah regional alliance thus began to crystallize. The systematic institutionalization of pro-Hezbollah politicians within the Lebanese political scene started to bear fruit. Contentious and problematic issues started to flare up in Lebanon beyond the presidential extension for Lahud, namely the Shiite presentation in parliament and Hezbollah arms. The issue of Palestinian resettlement and the largely non-existent Christian majority in Lebanon[26], and the ramifications of power delegation among ethnic and religious factions, was also brought into question. In a real sense, the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, which was brought about by UN Resolution 1559 did not reduce Syrian influence[27]. In contrast, it heightened its strategic alliance with Christian Lebanese politicians, General Aoun among them, who would be able in the coming years to fulfill the Syrian view[28].

The assassination of Rafiq al-Harriri on February 14, 2005 shook the Syrian boat once again. A concerted international uproar demonized the Syrian government, which denied the allegations[29]. What is of interest here is the ability of the Syrian government to manage its web of interests even during looming existential crises. The Syrian alliance with Hezbollah took an official tone supported by an expanding and politically mobilized Shiite constituency. The expanding influence of Hezbollah, not just as a mere resistance group operating within a legitimized context but as an increasingly stronger political actor able to mobilize the constituency on election days, played perfectly into Syria’s predictions for the region[30].

Syria’s alliance with Hamas on the other hand served six purposes: it reduced the sting of a purely Shiite coalition consisting of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. It legitimized the Hamas election victory and subsequent takeover of Gaza. It hindered any brokered peace negotiation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel due to the lack of PLO control over Hamas and its rockets. It was an added pressure point against US policy implementation in the region. It played fairly well with increasing Arab and Islamic calls for unity and support for the oppressed in the occupied territories. It also enhanced Syria’s mediation role between the Palestinian factions on the one hand and the Palestinians and Arab countries on the other.

The military and strategic surprise of the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon bore the fruits of a calculated defiance championed by Iran and Syria[31]. The results of the war as far as the internal Lebanese power balance was concerned, tipped the power scale towards the Hezbollah-General Aoun coalition[32]. The election of General Suleiman as the new Lebanese president and the subsequent reinstatement of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon in 2008 are but a few results of the new strategic realignment between Syria and a number of Lebanese factions. The events leading to normalizing relations between Lebanon and Syria in 2008[33] took place in the absence of American influence. This normalization strengthened and legitimized Syrian support of Hezbollah even further.

The Israeli siege on Gaza starting in 2007 aimed at weakening Hamas authority over Gaza and thereby stopping the rockets from reaching Israeli towns and settlements, de- legitimizing Hamas in the eyes of Gazans and delivering Gaza to the PLO. Gaza remained loyal to its elected leadership despite tremendous economic hardship and political pressure form President Abbas and the international community. Again, Syria and Iran provided more than symbolic support for Hamas[34]. Khalid Mishal, the Hamas spokesperson in Damascus, rallied Palestinians and declared unrelenting resistance to the occupation, even just a few months before the start of the Israeli war on Gaza in December 2008.

During the Israeli war on Gaza, Arab diplomacy reached an unprecedented peak when the Hamas leadership was called upon to represent Palestinians in the Doha conference on January 16, 2009[35] with the attendance of Iranian President Ahamdinajad and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Meanwhile, an economic conference with an agenda focused on Gaza was in preparation in Kuwait. The Kuwait conference on January 19, 2009[36] surprised many spectators when rifts between Egypt and Syria, and Saudi Arabia and Syria were mended. Furthermore, during the conference, the Saudi king threatened to withdraw the Arab peace proposal that had been on the table since 2002[37], thereby undermining Israeli claims that moderate Arabs were supporting their policies in Gaza. Again, with this dual strategic attendance—the one in Doha and the one in Kuwait—Syria was able to strengthen its strategic alliance with Hamas and minimize the allegations of Iran being a security threat to the Arab countries.


Simplifying geopolitical realities on the ground in order to project irrationality onto Syrian or Iranian foreign policy has served only to cripple and minimize the United States’ stance and influence in the region. Imposing isolation strategies on Syria has simply fortified Syrian resolve to look elsewhere for support of their national interests and national security while increasing their oppositional advantage. The Iraqi and Lebanese governments understand the geopolitical, cultural, and historic realities of the region and are bound by rationality to be part of the power realignments between Iran/Syria and Saudi Arabia/Egypt. The stabilizing component of this configuration is to let it play out in coordination with an active American internationalism policy.

Stability in the region must be encouraged by the United States. Interfering with regional power configurations will only delay and complicate the projection of American interests in the region. Stability can be advanced by allowing the power tug between Syria/Iran and Saudi Arabia/ Egypt to take its course with a minimum of US interference, assuming that this settlement period adheres to international conventional norms. Clearly, post-Iraq war geopolitics and the progress of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations are determinants that will play into the strategies of both alignments.

The current reconciliatory atmosphere among the Arab states, especially between the moderate and the resistance camps—though far from being a reliable trend—is emerging as a regional reaction to the preemptive/deterrence policies of the United States and its indelible bias towards the rights and interests of the state of Israel. The rift between US foreign policy projections in the Middle East and the realities on the ground must be reassessed in order to project an effective and assertive foreign policy. This can not be a US foreign policy that will forgo the advancement of its own interests because of its isolation strategies. Indeed, these have blurred the image of America in the region as being a beacon of hope amidst the bolstered Syrian/Iranian argument about American imperialism in the region.

A new Middle East is indeed emerging. What is of interest to the United States is to reclaim the concept by seizing it on the grounds of reengagement. Championing the ideals of progressive and reform movements in the region is a long-term strategic interest of the United States, which is a vital component of a foreign policy that is based on internationalism. To understand the current political changes that are shaping regional strategic alliances between Syria and Iran is to tap into the future regional determinants.

Acknowledging the interests among the central players in the region demands a worldview congruent with an internationalist understanding of world affairs. Arriving at mutual interests is a second step to viewing the other as equal and sovereign, with rights to strive for security and influence. This acknowledgment will allow for a practical negotiation approach in which the advancement of economic interests, the return of the Golan Heights and regional anatomy are perceived as stabilizing components. Moreover, a dialogue with Syria will enhance the flexibility of US foreign policy makers to adjust their negotiation package in response to direct contact. A direct and official dialogue with Syria is more results oriented than an unofficial one that includes no commitment repercussions. A Syrian American dialogue will undercut notions of American imperialism in the region. In addition, it will condition Arab and Islamic perception of American ideals as being friendly and further enhance the chances of implementing a peace deal with Israel.

End Notes

[1] A detailed analysis on former secretary of state’s visit to Tel Aviv on July 2006 can be found on retrieved on May 29th, 2008
[2] Internationalism understood as a policy of cooperation among nations. A critical component being
perceiving the “other” as equal and recognizing the interests of other countries.
[3] Also known as the” Libya Model” . Foreign Policy In Focus ran an article advocating the application of
the Libya model on Iran and Syria in 2004
retrieved November 10th 2008
[4] For a detailed account on the power consolidation process in Syria under Asad consult Hinnebusch, 1997
Syria and Iran: middle powers in a penetrated regional system,p.60-p.86.
[5] Further information on the water tension between Turkey and Syria, and Abdullah Öcalan can be found
on retrieved June 15th, 2008
[6] A concise analysis on Turkish Syrian relations as Erdogan ‘s Legacy can be found retrieved January 10th, 2009
[7] This Syrian role conception is discussed in detail in Ehteshami, Hinnebusch 1997 p.59-p.60
[8] Syria’s economic and security interests in Lebanon is discussed in the Christian Science Monitor article
dated August 1st, 1995, by John Battersby titled Why Lebanon follows the Road to Damascus.
[9] An in-depth look into Syria’s economic crises of the 1980s can be found in Perthes, 1995 The Political
Economy of Syria under Asad p.53-p.58.
[10] For further discussion on this topic consult Perthes, 1995 The Political Economy of Syria under Asad
p. 186 . Also see Syria’s Troubled Economy by Eliyahu Knavsky , June 1997 VolumeIV, Number 2 retrieved May 30th, 2008
[11] Perthes, 1995 p.33-p.34.
[12] A principle used effectively with Egypt in the 1970s. This policy was used by the Reagan administration to oppose UN economic sanctions and isolation imposed on the apartheid regime in South Africa, it was also supported by Margaret Thatcher at the time.
[13] For selected articles on these attacks see Israeli Foreign Ministry website published Dec.12th 1996 retrieved November 10th 2008
[14] A comprehensive analysis of the peace talks article published September 27th, 2004 by Yoram Peri titled Peace with Syria
[15] Hamas is predominantly Sunni and Hezbollah are Shiite. Another clear demonstration of a practical
Syrian Foreign policy that utilizes opportunities and forms alliances under a resistance ideology to
American penetration of the region.

[16] For further information on the reemergence of Islamic conservatism in Syria see Joshua Landis’s article dated Jan.19th 2005 retrieved Jan. 15th, 2008
[17] Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, Post Cold War Politics are discussed with an emphasis on Isolating and Punishing Rogue States retrieved Jan15th, 2008
[18] For an insightful and entertaining take on “rogue state” definition read The Bush Doctrine and Rogue States by Christopher Preble dated October 2005, Foreign Service Journal retrieved May 20th 2008
[19] Ehteshami, Hinnebusch, 1997 p.87-p.116
[20] For the definition of regional middle power alliance see Ehteshami, Hinnebusch, 1997 p.21
[21] On the regime change and the Iraq war see Fawn, Hinnebusch 2006 The Iraq War: Causes and Consequences
[22] Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki first Official visit to Syria August 2007 retrieved Nov. 20th 2008
[23]The role of ethnic lobbying groups in Washington is evident in this case.
The Syrian Accountability Act,
retrieved on May 12th, 2007.
[24] The economic effect of the isolation strategy in addition to an in-depth economic overview see Economic News about Syria dated Sep.3rd 2008 by Phil Sands and Lina Sinjab retrieved on Dec 30th 2008
[25] The intense international pressure is depicted in the 2004 archieve of Syria Special Weapon’s News at retrieved Dec. 20th 2008
[26] It is widely believed that the Christian majority has ended in the 1930s in Lebanon. . Adding to this complication are the 400,000 Palestinian refugees (UNRWA March 2005).
[27] UN resolution 1559 retrieved May12th, 2007.

[28]The Syrian view of electing a Lebanese president, General Suleiman, who is on a good standing with
Syria. This election was a compromise between the majority and opposition, brokered by Qatar.
[29] A news report stating Syria’s denial of involvement in the Harriri assassination retrieved May 30th 2008
[30] For an interesting take on Hezbollah’s heavy involvement in Lebanese politics read Zvi Bar’el piece titled Price of Quite in Lebanon is Hezbollah in Power Dated May 26th 2008 retrieved Dec 10th 2008
[31] On General Aoun historic visit to Syria which forced him into exile in 1990 read retrieved Dec 10th 2008
[32] Further analysis of Aoun closer relations with Syria read Zvi Ba’rel article dated Dec 17th 2008 Neighbors/ Showtime for General Aoun at retrieved Jan 15th 2009
[33] On the Normalization of Syrian Lebanese Ties read article dated Oct 15th 2008 retrieved Jan 15th 2009
[34] Hamas leader thanking Iran and Syria for support during the Gaza crises in Dec 2008. Article by Thomas Erdbrink Feb 3rd 2009 , retrieved Feb 5th 2009
[35] On Hamas attending the Doha conference read article published on January 16th 2009 retrieved Jan 25th 2009
[36]About the economic conference in Kuwait read this article by Michael Slackman titled At Arab Gathering on Development the Talk is about Gaza dated Jan21st 2009,%20Amr retrieved Jan 30t 2009
[37]On the Arab peace proposal and the subsequent Israeli reaction read Israel Hears Arab Peace Proposal dated July 27th2007 retrieved Jan 30th 2008