Thursday, 23 September 2010


  Joshua M. Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma and writer of the a daily newsletter blog Syria Comment on Syrian politics answered ORSAM’s questions on Syrian foreign policy, regional politics, peace process and relations of Syria with Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. 

ORSAM: To start with Syrian foreign policy in general, it is usually analyzed with neo-realist considerations, omnibalancing approach rests on regime survival concerns, historical sociology pays attention to the levels of state formation or political economy. What do you think are the main determinants of Syrian foreign policy?

Joshua M. Landis: All regimes and countries defend themselves. This is not shocking and shouldn’t be a revelation in explaining the behavior of Syria’s leadership. For example, Tony Blair has revealed in his recently published memoirs that Vice President Cheney was deadly serious in his ambition to bring down the Syrian state following Washington’s successful destruction of the Iraqi state. It is in this light that we can understand Syria’s determination to assist the emergence of an Iraqi resistance that could frustrate Washington’s further designs of regime destruction in the region.
Syria’s most important foreign policy goals are to remain a regional power, get back the Golan Heights that was taken from it in 1967 by Israel, remain the principal power in Lebanon, which Syria considers crucial for its defense, and to tend its key relations with both Iran and Turkey.

ORSAM:  Another related question, some constructivist scholars claim that the domestic transformation triggered by economic liberalization helped Syrian identity undergo a transformation from Arab to separate Syrian identity. Do you agree with this? In your opinion, to what extent identity shapes foreign policy behavior in Syria?
National identity is an important factor in shaping Syrian foreign policy as it is for most states. Syria has been growing into its borders that were imposed on it by France and Britain following WWI. Damascus has normalized relations with most neighbors and settled most border disputes. Most notably, this is the case with Turkey. By traveling to Ankara in 2004, Bashar al-Assad indicated that Syria was willing to bow to Turkey’s 1939 annexation of Sanjak of Iskanderoun, or the Vilayet of Hatay in order to build good relations. All the same, it would be a mistake to suggest that Syria has abandoned Arabism for Syrianism. It has not. The constitution and laws of Syria enshrine its Arab identity, Syria’s Kurds and ethnic minorities are compelled to embrace the majority Arab identity despite their protests and preference for a uniquely Syrian identity. Moreover, the government continues to use Arabism to justify its foreign policy interests in the neighborhood.
ORSAM: After the initial years that Bashar Assad’s leadership capabilities were questioned, he is showing a leader profile that has strengthened his situation both inside and outside. Syria seems to overcome the period of isolation and pressure started with President Bush. How do you evaluate Bashar Assad period Syrian foreign policy?
Assad has been very successful in frustrating US and Israeli ambitions in the region. The Bush administration sought to force Damascus to reverse its foreign policy ambitions and “flip” from being an ally of Iran to embracing Washington’s interests. Turkey has been crucial in enabling Assad’s foreign policy successes in Iraq and toward Israel. Ankara refused to fall in step with President Bush’s policy of isolating Damascus and punishing it with economic sanctions. Turkey’s independent policy has earned it great admiration and gratitude in Syria.

Despite Washington’s determined effort to drive Syria from Lebanon and destroy Hizbullah, Damascus remains the predominant power in Beirut and the Shiite militia has grown in strength.
ORSAM: How do you evaluate Bashar Assad’s policy towards Israel in the first decade of his presidency? Direct peace talks between Israel and Palestinians started and George Mitchell told that they are trying to engage Syria. What do you predict about Syrian-Israeli relations in the upcoming decade?
Israeli-Syrian relations have been largely determined by the balance of power between the two countries. Israel remains a regional super power and Syria’s military capabilities are limited. This means that Jerusalem can ignore Syrian demands and avoid accepting the Arab Peace Initiative put forward in 2002. All the same, Israel has failed to destroy Hizbullah and Hamas and has failed to dissuade Russian and Iran from selling arms to Damascus, which means that Syria retains some leverage in its relations with Israel. Syria is unlikely to abandon its claim to the Golan, support for Palestinians resistance and enmity to Israel.
ORSAM: Bashar Assad recently said “the prospects of war and confrontation are increasing”. How do you evaluate war rhetoric of Bashar Assad? What is the reason of these frequent war discourses in the Middle East?
Assad is determined to resist Israeli expansion as he is determined to improve Syria’s weaponry. This is likely to provoke Israeli preemtive military retribution. Israel’s 2006 war with Hizbullah, 2007 bombing of Syria’s nuclear facility, and 2009 bombing of Gaza were short wars designed to keep its enemies weak and plient. So long as Syria refuses to accept Israel’s claim to the Golan and settlement expansion, there is every reason to believe that Jerusalem will continue to pursue its policy of periodic military strikes.
ORSAM: What can you say about the withdrawal of the US from Iraq? Considering the effect of Iraqi war, how will this new term affect Syria?
Syria is enthusiastic about the US withdrawal from Iraq and hopes for the formation of a new government in Baghdad that will pursue improved economic relations with Syria.
ORSAM: How should we read the recent visit of King Abdullah and Bashar Assad to Beirut? What are the possible implications of this visit in terms of the future of Lebanon?
Syria and Saudi Arabia have patched up their relations, which deteriorated badly during the Bush administration. Lebanon was their main point of conflict, but both countries seem to have put this difference behind them. Syria has reasserted its political primacy in Lebanon, and Saudi authorities have accepted this Syrian leadership, but have retained a leading position in the Lebanese economy. In short, Syrian-Saudi relations have returned to what they were before President Bush invaded Iraq with the object of transforming the Greater Middle East and wrestling Lebanon from Syria’s sphere of influence.
ORSAM: Lebanon Special Tribunal will soon declare its indictment regarding Hariri murder. Probably Hezbollah will be claimed to be affiliated with the murder. Within this framework, firstly, previously the target in the indictments was Syria. What does it mean that the target turned into Hezbollah, should it be understood as natural development of the investigation or as a policy change? Secondly, how will the declaration of the indictment affect the political and security situation in Lebanon?
The Tribunal’s indictments will probably not be politically explosive. Even though the Special Tribunal was originally established by the US to further its political objectives in the region and to eliminating Syrian influence in Lebanon, those objectives have largely been abandoned. Renewed Saudi-Syrian cooperation and the survival of Lebanon’s national unity government suggest that regional powers are cooperating to make sure that the indictments will not change the communal balance of power in Lebanon.
ORSAM: You lived many years in Syria. What can you say about developing Turkey-Syrian relations? How is perception of Turkey in Syria? Do you see this cooperation as permanent or a temporary convergence of interests? What do the developing ties mean for the Middle East?
Syria’s improved relations with Turkey is the center-piece to Bashar al-Assad’s new Foreign Policy. President Assad has called his strategy the Five Seas Plan. It is an attempt to maximize Syria’s geographical position as the link for oil, gas and transportation between the the Arabian, Mediterranean, Caspian, Black and Red Seas.
Interestingly enough Turkey has played an important role in Assad’s development of this vision. Just as Syria has begun to replicate Turkey’s “zero problems” foreign policy, it has also borrowed heavily from Turkey’s economic vision of itself as the link between Europe and Asia. Assad first began to develop his plan in 2004 during his early visits to Istanbul. He spoke with the Turks about developing the infrastructure to turn Syria into the transport hub for oil, gas and electrical power. Syria would link Turkey to Africa and the Arab world. Iraq was in a shambles and unsafe, leaving Syria the only route through the Middle East. In May 2009, when President Assad traveled to Vienna and Greece, he continued to push the five seas plan to European investors.
In June of 2010, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan laid the groundwork for a “Free Trade Zone” that does away with visa requirements and tariffs. Syria hopes that Iraq and ultimately Iran will be brought into this agreement. Syria has already eliminated visa requirements for Iranians. Syria has recently opened a gas pipeline that connects Egypt to Turkey. It has plans to rebuild the oil pipeline that connects Kirkuk in Iraq to the Mediterranean coast, which is the most direct and least expensive way to get Iraq’s northern oil to market. Assad has spoken of the need to generate investments worth $77bn from the private sector over the next five years in order to build up Syria’s infrastructure turn his vision into reality. If Syria can attract these investments and preserve stability it will be well on its way to breaking out of its economic stagnation. Improving economic, military, and cultural relations with Turkey are key to Syria’s plans. Turkey’s prime minister has spoken his country’s special relationship with Syria as a model for the relations he hopes to develop with other countries in the region. Every indication seems to point toward a permanent improvement in Syrian-Turkish relations.
*This interview was conducted on 6 September 2010 by ORSAM Middle East Research Assistant Selen Tonkuş Kareem.

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