Syria’s ongoing civil war has elicited a flood of policy recommendations from American observers, most of them based entirely on perceptions of immediate U.S. interests. Recent developments in Syria and the Middle East have focused American attention on a few considerations of obvious and urgent import, obscuring other considerations that have historically mattered to the United States. Although some geopolitical features of Syria that were critical in decades past are no longer so, others merit the attention of anyone concerned with U.S. policy towards Syria today.
For most of its history as an independent nation, Syria has been a national security concern of the United States primarily because of its relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Syria’s government has consistently evidenced hostility towards Israel, abetting its foes and refusing to make peace with the Israeli government as many of its Arab neighbors have. Yet Syria has at times also played a stabilizing role in the Middle East, which is one of several reasons why the current Syrian government’s collapse would not necessarily help either Israel or the United States.
When Syria gained its independence in 1946, the United States sought friendly relations with its fledgling government, but President Truman’s decision soon thereafter to support the state of Israel turned Syria against the United States. Syria and its Arab neighbors sought assistance from America’s arch-enemy, the Soviet Union, in developing effective military forces for use against Israel. Syria collaborated extensively with Egypt during the early Cold War, when Egypt was the leader of the anti-Israeli coalition of Arab nations, going so far as to unite with Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic.
Despite the acquisition of advanced Soviet military technology, the Arab nations suffered a humiliating defeat to Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, after which Syria lost the Golan Heights. The Syrian military intervened in Jordan in 1970 in support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization against the royalist government, but had to beat a retreat in the face of threats from Israel and the United States. It fared somewhat better during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which the Israelis sustained initial defeats at the hands of Egyptian and Syrian forces before reversing the tide with American assistance.
When Syria’s erstwhile Arab allies began making peace with Israel in the late 1970s, Syria warmed to the other leading source of hostility to Israel, Iran. During the 1980s, Syria joined Iran in cultivating Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Since that time, the transit of Iranian weapons and other support through Syria has been vital to the capacities of Hezbollah and Hamas for harming Israel.
Every U.S. President from Truman to Clinton sought to win Syria’s friendship in order to alleviate its hostility to Israel and facilitate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Syrians have often expressed interest in resolving the conflict, and they have participated in prolonged negotiations. Yet they have always backed away when a deal has neared fruition, even when the Israelis have offered to meet Syria’s most important demand of withdrawing from the Golan Heights.
In the decades preceding the Syrian civil war, U.S. policymakers emphasized that Syrian involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs was a critical lever in the stability of the Middle East. In 1976, the U.S. government encouraged Syria to send combat forces into Lebanon to prevent the victory of Islamic radicals in the Lebanese civil war. Within a few years, though, Syrian forces and their Lebanese allies came into conflict with Israeli forces and their Lebanese allies, compelling the United States to intervene in Lebanon diplomatically and, for a short time, militarily. The U.S. forces tried to play the role of impartial peacekeeper, but eventually came to be seen as favoring Lebanon’s Christians, which led to the bombing of the Beirut barracks by terrorists linked to Iran and Syria. As a consequence, the Reagan administration decided to withdraw U.S. forces and return to reliance on foreign militaries to stabilize Lebanon. The U.S. position on Syria’s military presence in Lebanon subsequently oscillated between support and opposition, until Syria withdrew its forces in 2005.
The departure of Syrian troops was, at the time, widely interpreted as a severe degradation of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Subsequent events, however, showed that Syria retained the ability to shape Lebanese events. In 2006, Syrian and Iranian support enabled Hezbollah to wage a surprisingly effective war against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. To this day, politicians with Syrian ancestry or a history of close cooperation with Syria occupy numerous senior leadership positions in the Lebanese government.
Syria’s value as a partner of the United States escalated in the 1980s owing to rising U.S. fears of international terrorists of Sunni Arab origin. The Syrian government, dominated by secular Arabs whose Alawite sect had only one-seventh as many adherents among Syria’s general population as Sunni Islam, shared America’s fears of Sunni extremists. Consequently, it collaborated with the United States in countering al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents during the 1980s and 1990s. This partnership netted numerous extremists who had posed a threat to Israel or the United States.
The still greater U.S. interest in Sunni extremists after 9/11 intensified collaboration between the American and Syrian governments for a short time, but the partnership disintegrated after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The overthrow of the Afghan and Iraqi governments together with harsh rhetoric from Washington spawned Syrian fears that Damascus would be the next stop on America’s regime-change tour. To convince the United States that such an invasion would be costly and to tie U.S. forces down in Iraq, Syria invited Sunni terrorists from around the world to enter Iraq via Syrian territory. Syria’s assistance to Iraq-bound extremists led the Bush administration to pursue a policy of isolating and undermining Syria, which involved economic sanctions and aid to Syrian democracy activists whom it envisioned as vanguards of political transformation.
The chaos and bloodletting that came with the democratization of Iraq eroded American confidence that democratization could yield more enlightened and less belligerent governments in Arab countries. When Barack Obama took office, he downgraded democracy promotion as a U.S. foreign policy objective, and sought to “engage” Syria and other authoritarian states. But the Obama administration’s efforts to obtain Syrian cooperation in promoting Middle East peace during 2009 and 2010 bore little fruit.
The democratic leanings of some of the Arab Spring protesters in late 2010 and early 2011 led the Obama administration to reverse its position on democratization in the Arab world. After some initial hesitation, it threw America’s weight behind the democratic oppositionists in Tunisia and Egypt and backed the opposition in Libya with force. The bloodshed and messy aftermath of the Libyan conflict, however, rekindled some of the earlier doubts about the wisdom of U.S. support for democratization. Those doubts led the Obama administration to shy away from supporting Syria’s rebels during 2011.
The growing presence of foreign Sunni extremists on Syrian territory in early 2012 caused yet another shift in the U.S. position on supporting Syrian rebels. The Obama administration slowly increased aid to what it considered the more moderate groups, in the hopes of enabling them to oust the Assad government before extremist groups did. If the extremist rebels gained control over Syria, administration officials worried, they would inherit chemical weapons and advanced conventional weapons that could be used against Israeli or U.S. targets. A victory by the moderate rebels, on the other hand, would improve the prospects for the Middle East peace process and weaken Iran’s ability to support Hezbollah and Hamas.
Determining which Syrian rebels to support has, however, proven a very difficult and perilous undertaking. Having paid little attention the rebel factions until a year ago, the U.S. intelligence community does not have a firm grasp on which groups are moderates and which are extremists. Many of these groups are habitually secretive and deceptive when it comes to their ultimate objectives. The moderate leaders of today, moreover, could be ousted by extremists within the organization tomorrow.
A defeat of the Assad government by Syrian rebels, even the most moderate of them, is far from certain to promote American interests. Iran would likely continue to support militias inside Syria, first and foremost to maintain a coastal enclave that would allow Iran continued movement of materiel and people from Iran to Lebanon. Alawites, Christians, and Kurds, who comprise roughly thirty percent of Syria’s population and have largely supported the Assad regime, might well migrate to areas under Iranian dominance out of fear of the Sunni Arab majority. If a new Syrian government shows the same disregard for international human rights standards as the Assad government has shown, which seems very possible, the countries that brought that government to power will incur the blame.
The current U.S. focus on bringing moderates to power in Syria has also diverted attention from features of Syria that have historically helped advance U.S. national security objectives. While Syria’s assistance to Hezbollah has caused considerable trouble in Lebanon, the Syrian government’s contributions to peace and stability in Lebanon should not be forgotten. A new Syrian government is unlikely to have the knowledge or personal connections in Syria to maintain a stabilizing influence there.
Lastly, a rebel victory is likely to reduce or eliminate the opposition to Sunni extremism that has been a historic characteristic of the Syrian government. Even if the new government were exceedingly moderate, its predominantly Sunni composition surely would prevent it from hunting down Sunni terrorists with the same fervor as its Alawite predecessors. Iraq provides a sobering reminder of the perils of empowering majority Arab groups that were historically governed by autocrats from minority Arab groups. By imposing democracy, the United States enabled Iraq’s Shiite majority to gain power, only to find that even the so-called moderates among them demonstrated little appetite for combating terrorists from their own branch of Islam. Some of Iraq’s Shiite terrorists are now practicing their craft in other countries—including Syria.