Farid El Khazen
Ever since the state was formed in the 1920s, the struggle for Syria began. Hinging on the ups and downs of internal and regional power politics, the struggle for Syria unfolded in phases, the most recent the Arab Spring and its aftermath since 2011.On the borderline between the Ottoman Empire and Arab provinces, mobilized by the Arab revolt in 1916, Syria was a disputed land. The transition from Ottomanism to Arabism took off, at a time when Syria witnessed the early stirrings of Arabism, then identified with the Hashemites.
Following World War I and the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria, particularly Damascus, was a disputed territory between Arab nationalists and France seeking to establish mandatory rule in line with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. France took over following the battle of Maysaloun in 1920 and the relocation of Sharif Hussein’s son, Emir Faisal, to Baghdad, where a Hashemite monarchy was established with British backing.
The struggle for Syria continued after independence, following the 1948 Palestine war and the rise of Nasserism in the 1950s. The hotbed of ideological politics, Syria was the scene of a power struggle between Arab nationalism and Syrian nationalism-an ideology calling for Greater Syria, articulated by Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the 1930s. Subsequently, the struggle for Syria went on, pitting the Baath Party and its rivals in the 1950s, notably the Syrian Nationalist and Communist Parties, against each other, a period elaborated in Patrick Seale’s book “The Struggle for Syria.”
Following the 1956 Suez War, Gamal Abdel-Nasser rose to unprecedented heights of popularity and influence in pan-Arab politics. In search of leadership and power, Syria’s Baath Party joined ranks with him and called for the merging of Syria and Egypt in what became in 1958 the United Arab Republic. Three years later, this hasty Union collapsed and deepened the divide between Nasser and the Baathists. Another split occurred within the Baath Party, after coming to power in Syria and Iraq in 1963.
Following years of instability and internal feuding, Hafez Assad took over in 1970. Buttressed by the outcome of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Assad regime gained legitimacy and power. The struggle for Syria turned inward, fomented by a violent clash between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood movement, crushed by the regime in the early 1980s.
Assad skillfully weathered the storm of regional politics, as Syria allied itself with Islamic Iran while keeping ties with Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia. He also re-established diplomatic relations with the United States after the 1973 war, while maintaining close ties with the Soviet Union.
Following Assad’s death and the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace talks in 2000, Syria, now led by Assad’s son, Bashar, faced new challenges. This time, it was the struggle for Iraq and the New Middle East, claimed by the George W. Bush administration, that dominated regional politics in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 drastically altered the regional power equation. Apart from Iraq, Syria was most affected and, specifically, Syrian-American relations, which rapidly deteriorated. This was first manifested in Lebanon, with the passing of UNSCR 1559 in 2004, calling upon Syria to withdraw from the country.
In 2011, the “Arab Spring” reached Syria at the end of the rope. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, the conflict in Syria quickly turned into a regional and international showdown. The overlap between the internal and external dimensions of the conflict was too absorbing.
This was yet another episode in the struggle for Syria. Regional and major powers intervened in pursuit of conflicting agendas and interests: Iran backed the Syria regime, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states supported opposition groups. Turkey, though a newcomer to the Arab scene, backed the most radical Islamist groups and was most impatient to topple the Syrian regime while associating itself with Muslim Brotherhood leaders, based in Istanbul. Meanwhile, Daesh (ISIS) and other armed Islamist jihadi groups fought holy wars against infidels in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
For major powers, Syria’s open battlefield was irresistible. For Russia, military intervention in support of the regime was an opportunity that could not be missed, especially following the Libyan debacle and the clash between Moscow and Washington and the European Union in Ukraine. Western powers had their own stake, first targeting the regime, then Islamist groups, following terrorist attacks carried out in Europe. The U.S., for its part, was content to get chemical weapons out of Syria and then carried out airstrikes targeting Daesh.
The struggle for Syria is now globalized while retaining its internal anchor. A common platform recently emerged bringing together improbable partners: Russia, Turkey and Iran. An alternative to the Geneva framework is currently in the making, and no settlement is possible without this trilateral entente, the success of which will also depend on the position of the Trump administration.
The struggle for Syria goes on. So does the suffering of civilians trapped in the debris of destruction and war. Before military operations end, no political settlement seems possible. And any settlement may not necessarily be to the liking of all or most parties – not unlike settlements in Syria’s historical junctures since the 1920s.
Farid el Khazen is a member of Lebanon’s Parliament and a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 17, 2017, on page 7.