Syria and the west: another wasted decade

Ten years of bullying has failed. If the west wants a more peaceful, democratic Middle East it must be friendlier to Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian 25 July 2010

As Bashar al-Assad celebrated his 10th year as president of Syria earlier this month, Human Rights Watch marked the occasion with a commendable report on the continued human rights abuses and anti-democratic nature of his regime. The report describes Assad’s reign thus-far as a “wasted decade”, with the 44-year-old eye doctor disappointing many by entrenching authoritarian rule rather than promoting greater political openness.

While these domestic failures should not be excused, they should not be viewed in isolation since they are closely related to the other major disappointment of Bashar’s first decade in power: Syria’s bumpy relationship with the west.

External threats have long provided the Ba’ath regime with a pretext for repression at home, and the past decade has seen no shortage of those. The invasions of Iraq in 2003 and Lebanon in 2006, followed by sectarian violence in both, as well as direct attacks on Syrian territory by Israel in 2007 and the US in 2008 have provided Assad with an arsenal of evidence to support his regime’s claim that it provides citizens with stability and safety in a rough neighbourhood.

Islamists, intellectuals and political dissidents are often arrested on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and other threats to this coveted stability. While Human Rights Watch correctly highlights that “a review of Syria’s record shows a consistent policy of repressing dissent regardless of international or regional pressures”, repression is still justified by the regime as part of a wider nationalist narrative of Syria constantly under threat from Israel, the US and its allies.

Western behaviour towards Syria in the past decade has only exacerbated this view. Despite initial intelligence co-operation between Washington and Damascus after 9/11, Syria’s opposition to the Iraq war placed it on a collision course with the Bush administration. With economic sanctions following, the withdrawal of the US ambassador from Damascus after the Hariri assassination in 2005, a cross-border raid by American marines in 2008 and the White House actually opposing indirect Israeli-Syrian peace talks in 2007-8, it was not difficult to paint the Bush administration as a genuine national threat.

While relations have warmed a little under Obama, sanctions have been renewed and, though the White House has named a new ambassador, the Senate has thus far refused to confirm the nomination. Despite Obama’s initial positive rhetoric, from the Syrian perspective the new president’s inability to stand up to pro-Israeli elements on Capitol Hill and his inertia on the Israeli-Arab peace process means little has changed. While the US is no longer the immediate enemy it was under Bush, Obama shows no sign of being able to restrain the hawkish Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, whose threats to Assad have further served to justify Syria’s tight security regime.

The EU’s approach to Syria has done little to balance the US’s confrontational stance in the past decade. Though European states resisted Bush’s request to implement their own economic sanctions on Syria, they did join in a diplomatic boycott for several years after Assad’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, and suspended Syria’s accession to the Euro-Med Partnership (EMP) in 2004. Although the boycott was eventually broken by French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, and an EMP Association Agreement was revived the following year, Syria seems not wholly convinced of European intentions.

EU members seem to hold Syria to a higher standard than they do its neighbours. Britain and France inserted a line in the 2004 draft Association Agreement requiring Syria to renounce weapons of mass destruction – a condition they had not demanded of Israel when it joined the EMP in 2000. Though this clause was eventually removed in the 2009 version, a new human rights “break clause” was added, not required of other EMP members with similarly poor records such as Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Not surprisingly, Syria remains suspicious of this new agreement and has yet to sign it.

Syria therefore feels unfairly victimised by the west and Assad is likely to continue to exploit this to bolster his domestic support while simultaneously justifying curbed freedoms. Having survived the Bush onslaught, Assad is visibly more confident: securing his position at home and reaching out for new allies abroad (notably his ever-closer ties to Erdogan’s Turkey). The US and EU, in contrast, look weak and less and less able to influence the region as they focus on internal problems.

The question for these western states is whether their antagonistic approach towards Syria has achieved any of the US and EU’s professed goals. After a decade of dithering, the region is no more stable, Israel is no safer and Syria no more democratic or free than it was when Bashar took over in 2000. The last 10 years have shown that none of these aims can be achieved by bullying, threatening or ignoring Syria. Full engagement on an equal footing would seem the best way to avoid wasting another decade.

Turkey and Europe

Good points by Joska Fischer in The Guardian 1 July 2010:

In fact, Turkey’s foreign policy, which seeks to resolve existing conflicts with and within neighbouring states, and active Turkish involvement there, is anything but in conflict with western interests. Quite the contrary. But the west (and Europe in particular) will finally have to take Turkey seriously as a partner – and stop viewing it as a western client state.

Turkey is and should be a member of the G20, because, with its young, rapidly growing population it will become a very strong state economically in the twenty-first century. Even today, the image of Turkey as the “sick man of Europe” is no longer accurate.

When, after the UN decision, the United States secretary of defence, Robert Gates, harshly criticised Europeans for having contributed to this estrangement by their behaviour towards Turkey, his undiplomatic frankness caused quite a stir in Paris and Berlin. But Gates had hit the nail on the head.

Ever since the change in government from Jacques Chirac to Nicolas Sarkozy in France and from Gerhard Schröder to Angela Merkel in Germany, Turkey has been strung along and put off by the European Union. Indeed, in the case of Cyprus, the EU wasn’t even above breaking previous commitments vis-à-vis Turkey and unilaterally changing jointly agreed rules. And, while the Europeans have formally kept to their decision to begin accession negotiations with Turkey, they have done little to advance the cause.

Only now, when the disaster in Turkish-European relations is becoming apparent, is the EU suddenly willing to open a new chapter in thenegotiations (which, incidentally, clearly proves that the deadlock was politically motivated).

It can’t be said often enough: Turkey is situated in a highly sensitive geopolitical location, particularly where Europe’s security is concerned. The eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean, the western Balkans, the Caspian region and the southern Caucasus, Central Asia, and theMiddle East are all areas where the west will achieve nothing or very little without Turkey’s support. And this is true in terms not only of security policy, but also of energy policy if you’re looking for alternatives to Europe’s growing reliance on Russian energy supplies.

The west, and Europe in particular, really can’t afford to alienate Turkey, considering their interests, but objectively it is exactly this kind of estrangement that follows from European policy towards Turkey in the last few years.

Europe’s security in the 21st century will be determined to a significant degree in its neighbourhood in the southeast – exactly where Turkey is crucial for Europe’s security interests now and, increasingly, in the future. But, rather than binding Turkey as closely as possible to Europe and the west, European policy is driving Turkey into the arms of Russiaand Iran.

This kind of policy is ironic, absurd, and shortsighted all at once. For centuries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have been regional rivals, never allies. Europe’s political blindness, however, seems to override this fact.