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Syria: history, memory and the geopolitical souq

Matein Khalid
Filed on April 11, 2007

FREEDOM is taken, never given”. So wrote Colonel TE Lawrence, who midwifed the Arab revolt in the Hijaz against the Ottoman sultans during World War One, to the Hashemite prince Emir Faisal.

Lawrence of Arabia’s words were to prove prophetic for the subsequent career of Faisal, and his Hashemite protégés destined to possess four and lose three Arab kingdoms (Hijaz, Syria, Iraq). The illusion of Arab independence was gutted by the Skyes–Picot plot, the Balfour Declaration and France’s conquest of the Ottoman Syrian carcass that Britain won for the Hashemites in the battlefields of Aqaba, Megiddo and Damascus.

The Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Druze, Ismailis, Americans, Jews and Gregorian Christians who lived in the ancient capital of the Umayyad Caliphate were not consulted when the British allowed their French allies to expel Faisal, the self–styled King of Syria, from Damascus. History and memory obsessed the fractious tribes of Syria in 1920 as well as their new colonial masters. After all, the French commander General Henri Gouraud’s first act after entering Damascus was to visit the tomb of the legendary Kurdish warrior from Tikrit who had expelled the Frankish crusader knights from the Levant and retaken Jerusalem for Islam at the Battle of Hittin Cross eight centuries earlier. “Saladin, we have returned!” General Gouraud exclaimed an imperial boast that would echo in the caves of Afghanistan seven decades later when Al–Qaeda demonised the “crusaders” and launched its fateful jihad against the West. Post Ottoman Syria became the nerve centre of successive Arab nationalist revolts, ethnic pogroms, and military coups, four disastrous wars with Israel and, finally, the world’s last surviving Baathist dynastic dictatorship.

It was no coincidence that the first successful CIA coup d’ etat in the Middle East was not the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran but Colonel Hosni Zaim’s seizure of power in 1949. Syria, unlike Iraq, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, possessed no priceless reserves of black gold to attract Washington. Yet Syria was so critical a powerbroker in Middle East geopolitics that every American President from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton conducted a diplomatic tete a tete with Hafez Assad, the longest reigning potentate in Damascus since the Caliph Muawiya. Assad, an Alawite air force general whose Baath Party seized power in a palace coup in November 1970, is a seminal figure in modern Arab history, an ice–veined master strategist whose decisions dictated war and peace in the Middle East, life or death for a generation of Arab statesmen, revolutionaries, journalists and warlords.

President Assad plotted to overthrow the Hashemite King Hussein when the PLO and the Jordanian Army clashed during Black September in 1970, deterred only by the threat of Israeli intervention. Syria attacked Israel in October 1973, hoping to recover the Golan Heights it lost to the Zionists in the disaster of the Six Day War. When Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Lebanese allies almost vanquished the Maronite Christian warlords in 1976, Assad intervened in Lebanon, the confessional statelet created by colonial France out of Ottoman Syria, the fabled historic Bilaad Sham. The Syrian Army was destined to remain in Lebanon for the next thirty years, until Beirut’s Cedar Revolution convinced his son and successor to withdraw his troops after a million Lebanese citizens outraged by Rafik Hariri’s assassination demonstrated on the Place de Martyrs.

Saudi petrodollars, Soviet weapons and Iranian crude subsidies enabled Hafez Assad to confront Israel, impose his diktat on Lebanon, manipulate the Palestinian cause and impose a ruthless Baathist dictatorship, the quintessential Mukhabarat (intelligence) state, in Syria. Pragmatism is etched in the political DNA of the House of Assad. So Hafez Assad allied with the United States to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in Desert Storm even though Syrian intelligence agents had instigated the Hezbollah suicide bombers who slaughtered the Marines in Beirut, who abducted and murdered CIA chief of station Bill Buckley, who assassinated Bashir Gemayel, the pro–American Maronite President of Lebanon only eight years earlier. Dr Bashar Assad did not hesitate to hand over the Kurdish PKK chieftain Abdullah Ocalan and surrendered Syrian claims to the Turkish province of Hatay (Alexandretta) when Ankara threatened war. The border between Syria and Israel has been the quietest in the Middle East since Dr Kissinger’s disengagement accords in 1974. Syria is secular, having crushed a Muslim Brotherhood revolt against the Alawite regime at Hama two decade before 9/11.

Strident anti-Zionism provides Syria with a cause celebre to legitimise Assad’s dynastic dictatorship and punch far above its weight in Arab politics. Syria was isolated by Egypt and Jordan’s peace treaties with Israel, Bush’s regime change in Baathist Baghdad and the international disgust at Hariri’s assassination, particularly the outrage felt by the senior princes of the House of Saud. Syria has also lost its financial golden goose in Lebanon, which enriched Damascus’s army officers and intelligence satraps with the lucrative trade in Bekaa Valley drugs, arms and cigarette smuggling, protection rackets, property speculation and foreign exchange scams.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s victory over Israel last summer, Bush’s military quagmire in Iraq and the rapprochement with the Al–Saud princes at the Riyadh Summit have eased the diplomatic pressure on Dr Assad. As Colonel Gaddafi’s volte–face in Libya proves, dialogue and engagement can win old enemies, induce policy change. The West should engage Dr Bashar Assad, offer Syria the ultimate prize of a Golan settlement in exchange for ending its spoiler role in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. This is the geopolitical souq whose rules Syria understands all too well.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst


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